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Baltimore’s budget proposal slashes hundreds of vacant jobs due to coronavirus; pay cuts, furloughs under negotiation

After the coronavirus pandemic dealt Baltimore an economic body blow, city officials have presented a revised budget proposal that would eliminate hundreds of vacant positions, close two fire companies and reorganize the police department’s specialized units. City Hall is shown in this April 16, 2020, photo.
After the coronavirus pandemic dealt Baltimore an economic body blow, city officials have presented a revised budget proposal that would eliminate hundreds of vacant positions, close two fire companies and reorganize the police department’s specialized units. City Hall is shown in this April 16, 2020, photo.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

After the coronavirus pandemic dealt Baltimore an economic body blow, city officials on Wednesday presented a revised budget proposal that would eliminate hundreds of vacant positions, close two fire companies and reorganize the police department’s specialized units.

The finance department has spent the last month reworking the $3 billion operating budget to account for a steep decline in revenue.

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“We had to rewrite this budget quickly and make some tough choices,” Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said. He called the revised document a “realistic and responsible plan that focuses on the fundamentals and ensures the most crucial city services are still delivered.”

Baltimore is losing $20 million per month under restrictions intended to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. With businesses shuttered and more people unemployed, revenue collected from income taxes will be dramatically lower. Amid a stay-at-home order, the city is getting less from parking tickets, traffic cameras and money tied to the tourism industry.

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The city projected $103 million less in revenue for the 2021 fiscal year, representing a year-over-year decline in the general fund. Budget Director Bob Cenname said the last time that happened was during the Great Recession in 2008.

“We’re really in unprecedented territory here,” he said.

There are no new taxes or fees imposed in the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The city is still negotiating with labor unions about how to wrangle about $15 million worth of personnel savings needed to balance the budget. Officials presented the unions with three options last month: Freeze salaries and have employees forego collectively bargained raises, furlough workers for up to six days, or lay off more than 170 people.

Young said laying off employees during the pandemic is “the last thing I want to do.”

Cenname said the proposal manages to protect funding for some of Young’s priorities, including securing resources for children. The city plans to still contribute $30 million as a “down payment” on a long-term school construction plan. The YouthWorks summer jobs program would still be funded.

The city expects to also pour more than $8 million into a variety of IT infrastructure projects intended to minimize the risk of Baltimore being hit with another cybersecurity breach, following a crippling ransomware attack last year.

And about $1.4 million is earmarked for the creation of two new "Baltimore Community Intelligence Centers” modeled on the Chicago Police Department’s Strategic Decision Support Centers. These district-level operations are designed to bring together police, prosecutors and analysts to intervene and respond to crime. Baltimore currently has two of the centers.

Young originally planned to open five additional ones, but given the budget restraints, the administration is holding back. That would save about $3.4 million, Cenname said.

“We had to pause a lot of initiatives we just could not afford to do,” he said.

The city is also proposing that some specialized units in the police department be absorbed into others. Officers assigned to the mounted and traffic units would fill holes in functions such as patrol, which are deemed more essential. Officers would still be trained in these services, but not be permanently assigned to those kinds of units.

The group that investigates car crashes would begin focusing on the most serious or fatal ones, and the helicopter unit would reduce its flight time from 16 hours a day to 12. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he hoped the department would be able to squeeze savings in other areas so it doesn’t have to reduce flight hours.

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He said more than 30 vacant positions in the police department could be eliminated under the proposed budget plan. All are civilian positions.

A staffing study last year recommended that city police hire nearly 300 more sworn officers and 100 civilians, who would bolster the department’s IT, consent decree implementation, and education and training divisions.

“We now find ourselves in unprecedented times, where even the best plans we laid out have to be modified,” Harrison said.

The budget plan proposes closing two fire companies, though officials emphasized that no station would close.

Democratic City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer called that choice was “alarming," saying the city shouldn’t look to cut public safety resources right now.

“How many homes and businesses and lives have those two teams saved in the past year?” asked Schleifer, who is on the budget committee and leads the public safety committee.

The firefighters union opposed the cut, saying it could increase the time it takes for its members to respond to emergency calls.

The city is also asking agencies to defund about 240 vacant positions across the city. These jobs “run the gamut,” said Finance Director Henry Raymond, from secretaries to fiscal clerks.

“In the short term, we do not believe those positions have an immediate service impact," he said. “Over a period of time, some of those positions may have an administrative impact in terms of service delivery.”

The Department of Public Works would eliminate the squad focused on graffiti removal, and the city would put off plans to bolster the Charm City Circulator bus fleet.

These more dramatic actions would be coupled by trims across the board on other spending deemed nonessential, such as some travel costs.

Baltimore is not alone in dealing with these budget woes. Young joined county executives and members of the congressional delegation Tuesday to call for the federal government to prioritize assistance to state and local governments in the next congressional relief package.

So far, money allocated to local governments can be used to reimburse the city for costs associated with the pandemic, such as protective gear. Baltimore officials hope any new money could be used to reimburse its revenue losses due to declining spending by residents and tourists.

The budget proposal now moves to the City Council, which will hold hearings on the plan. The council is empowered to cut funding from the mayor’s proposal, but cannot spend money elsewhere.

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Democratic Councilman Eric Costello called the proposal a “very responsible budget, all things considered."

“My hope is everyone appreciates the complexity of the situation and the financial hardship we find ourselves in,” said Costello, the budget committee chairman. “I’m hopeful we’ll have good, open and honest dialogue and work through everyone’s concerns and get to a good place.”

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