Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Younghas been complaining for years that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeisn't placing a high enough priority on recreation centers, after-school programs and other services for Baltimore's youth. Now, with just a few weeks to go before the city's deadline to approve a budget for the next fiscal year, he's actually doing something about it. The council president is upending the generally quiescent City Council review of the mayor's spending proposal and suggesting some real changes to fund those priorities, as well as to prevent the closure of three fire stations and mitigate a sharp increase in municipal workers' health care costs. Not all of his ideas are good, but the effort nonetheless represents a step toward a stronger set of checks and balances in city government and deserves to be taken seriously.
Mr. Young is right that Baltimore needs to invest more in providing productive outlets for its youth after school and during the summer. The attempt to hand off management of many of the centers to private groups has produced mixed results at best, and closing existing centers before the city is able to provide the newer, higher quality facilities that the mayor has championed is unwise. Also notable in Mr. Young's proposal is an effort to restore funding for the highly regarded Experience Corps program, which pairs volunteer seniors with children in city schools. In all, Mr. Young is seeking to redirect about $9 million of the city's nearly $3 billion budget for those priorities.
Mr. Young also wants $3 million to keep three city fire stations open and $5 million to allow for a phase-in of higher employee heath care costs. The importance of those two proposals is less clear cut. Fire Chief James Clack has said he believes he can maintain and even improve his department's response time by replacing the current system of rotating station closures with permanent ones. And although city employees and retirees who choose traditional health insurance plans face large cost increases in the coming year if they elect to keep the same service, they do have the option to save money by choosing an HMO instead.
Likewise, some of his ideas for how to find the $17 million are better than others. The largest chunk of money Mr. Young has identified is in a surplus fund the city uses to cover unexpected health care expenses. Actuaries recommend the city have enough to cover three months worth of its typical bills, but the account now only has enough to cover one month, and Mr. Young would reduce that further. Such a move could put the city's bond rating at risk.
Mr. Young is also relying on a higher revenue estimate from speed cameras to fund $3.5 million in new spending. His assumption is that revenue from the speed cameras will not fall sharply, as the Rawlings-Blake administration expects and as and prior experience elsewhere in the state would suggest. The idea is problematic. For starters, speed camera money, by law, can only go toward public safety and transportation. Even if that's overcome by shuffling other funds, relying on speed camera money as a stable or growing revenue source indicates a misunderstanding of the program's purpose. It is to deter speeding, not raise money. If the cameras don't produce diminishing monetary returns, they are being used improperly.
Much to his credit, though, Mr. Young also includes a lengthy list of specific cuts to city programs, mostly to proposals for new hires and new equipment. He is also proposing the elimination of nearly 60 funded but currently vacant positions. Some of those proposals may be penny-wise, pound foolish (such as the elimination of a new position in an office whose job is to find people who are improperly benefiting from assorted tax credit programs). But others may make sense.
In the meantime, if Mr. Young is in a mood to expend political capital in the cause of the city's youth, he might also turn his attention to the mayor's stalled effort to raise money for school construction and renovation. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's proposal to increase the city's bottle tax is stuck in committee, but no viable alternative has emerged. While Mr. Young is pressuring the mayor to provide better facilities for youth after school, he might also pressure his colleagues on the council to provide better facilities during the school day.