Nearly half of Baltimore's municipal employees and retirees have a "critical or chronic" illness — a distinction that contributes to the high cost of providing their health insurance, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday.
"We need to improve the wellness of our workforce to reduce costs by promoting fitness and smoking cessation," Rawlings-Blake said as she released a consultants' report about the city's long-term finances. "Our workforce is unhealthy and it's driving up our costs."
The mayor discussed the 103-page report — highlights of which were released last week — before an audience of about 100 in an auditorium at the Walters Art Museum. The report, for which the city paid $585,000, details a long-term financial shortfall and offers recommendations for saving money.
In her State of the City speech last week, the mayor proposed a new trash collection fee, a smaller city workforce and cuts to employee benefits as a way to deal with the projected $750 million, 10-year budget shortfall.
Rawlings-Blake said she also wants more city workers to contribute to their retirement funds and firefighters to work longer hours. In return, she said, the city could use the savings to raise employee salaries and cut property taxes by 22 percent — 50 cents per $100 of assessed value — over the next decade.
At the Walters Wednesday, she did not offer details of those proposals but mentioned several other ways to save money or raise revenue.
She told the community and business leaders gathered for the event that the rate of health problems among city workers is double the rate of such diseases in the general work-age population.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 130 million Americans have a chronic illness, and obesity and cigarette smoking are two of the biggest causes of such illnesses.
The report by Public Financial Management Inc. of Philadelphia said the city should launch unspecified employee wellness initiatives to improve workers' health.
It noted that Baltimore paid $15,732 last year to provide health benefits for an average city employee — according to the city budget, a total of more than $250 million for employees and retirees. Based on the firm's recommendations, the city already has modified health benefits to charge lower premiums but require higher co-payments. That will save the city more than $20 million a year, officials said.
The city's health care system is one of two audits the mayor is calling for as a result of the report. The other is an audit of the municipal phone system, which has been a source of contention between the mayor and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
Citing future expenses, Rawlings-Blake said Baltimore faces a 10-year, $1.1 billion "infrastructure deficit." Twenty-one bridges need to be replaced, she said, and nearly half of the city's roads have been rated "poor."
"In the past three years, we have done more road repair than any recent administration," she said. "Yet, this still falls short of what we need to do annually to make significant repairs to our roads."
The report also floated ideas for two additional taxes — on taxi trips and restaurant meals. Rawlings-Blake said she wants to "look at a taxi tax so that nonresident commuters and visitors that use our transportation system pay their fair share." A tax on restaurant meals would be considered only if the city secures state and private financing for a new sports and entertainment arena, officials said.
The mayor also endorsed a proposal by Councilman Bill Henry to impose a new fee on the city's billboards, and said she would seek to solicit naming rights on some city properties as a way to grow revenue. She said she would also crack down on those residents who are receiving erroneous tax credits.
During her presentation, Rawlings-Blake had harsh words for the existing pension systems for municipal employees, which she said "busted" the city's budget, and caused municipal workers to be underpaid.
She emphasized her goal of growing Baltimore by 10,000 families and her plans to expand initiatives aimed at renovating or demolishing vacant homes and consolidating the city's aging recreation centers by closing some and improving others.
"The status quo is unsustainable," Rawlings-Blake said. As the mayor ended her speech, the U2 song "Where The Streets Have No Name" played in the auditorium.
University of Maryland Baltimore County president Freeman A. Hrabowski III introduced Rawlings-Blake at the event and called her a "bold leader."
"The strength of the region is directly tied to the strength of Baltimore city," Hrabowski said.
After the presentation, Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, praised the mayor's proposals and said they required "political courage."
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