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What we learned from Baltimore’s $3 billion operating budget

Last year's ransomware attack convinced city leaders to spend more on information technology upgrades and security.
Last year's ransomware attack convinced city leaders to spend more on information technology upgrades and security. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

The Baltimore City Council passed a $3 billion operating budget that slims down spending due to the economic blow on city tax collections brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The budget — redrafted by outgoing Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and his team between April and May after the outbreak started — includes no new taxes or fees and protects spending for children, including $30 million toward school construction. The city is projecting revenues losses of $103 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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Now that the spending plan is returned to him, the mayor is expected to take action on it in the coming days.

Council members put together a package eliminating about $23 million in spending, all of which were to law enforcement. The Council wanted to shift the money to areas they thought would enrich people’s lives and communities. The action was in response to protests in Baltimore and across the country against police brutality.

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But Young refused to negotiate with the Council to redirect the money, arguing the police department is an agency in the midst of reform. That means funding is likely to be eliminated from the law enforcement agencies, but won’t be shifted elsewhere. Instead, the money is expected to create a surplus for the fiscal 2022 budget.

Under the city charter, the Council can make cuts to the budget but cannot redirect the spending without the mayor.

The shutdown is causing a steep decline in city revenue, forcing budget cuts.

Revenue from hotels, income taxes and parking are among the city’s shrinking sources of money. To deal with the losses, the city is planning to eliminate 240 vacant positions, reorganize the police department’s specialized units and disband and reassign two fire department companies.

The city also is going to get rid of its graffiti removal teams. The people who removed spray paint and vandalized city property will be reassigned to what the Young administration says is more critical work, such as solid waste collection and street and alley cleaning.

The fire department needs to rein in overtime spending.

The members of the companies will be reassigned to help Chief Niles Ford fill in for firefighters who are out sick or on vacation. Ford told the Council this action will help him manage his overtime budget and work within the agency’s overall budget of about $300 million.

The closures are expected to save at least $3 million.

Which companies will be disbanded has not been revealed publicly. The Council pressed Ford last week for the information on the recommended companies and where they are located, but the chief said that data was still being analyzed. A fire department spokeswoman did not respond to request for information Monday.

Council members are concerned such closures would decrease response times.

The fire department is working with a consultant to assess its staff structure, schedules, compensation and leave and overtime polices.

Last year’s ransomware attack spurs investments in the city’s cyber security.

The budget will pump more than $12 million into protecting and enhancing Baltimore’s cyber infrastructure. The investment comes after a ransomware attack that rocked the city a year ago.

The projects involve new cable and wiring, an upgraded data warehouse and new security tools.

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In all, the administration reports that the budget includes $205.9 million for the delivery of public services to the residents. That includes money for the financial, legal, information technology and human resources departments.

The police department’s budget was the most scrutinized of all city agencies, prompted by protests across Baltimore and the nation.

The Council cut about $23 million in funding from the police department’s $550 million budget with the intention of shifting that money to an assortment of services, including increased recreation center hours and helping seniors stay in their homes. But the mayor has refused to redirect that money.

The cuts include about $7 million from police overtime, $1.87 million to close the marine unit, $554,000 to eliminate the mounted unit and $176,000 to delay the opening of two community intelligence centers.

Much of the $23 million, however, is in the form of “unallocated” dollars. That represents money the agency expects to receive in government grants, so it does not reduce general fund spending. The money works like a revolving loan: the department spends money it has in the unallocated fund and then repays the fund once they receive the grant. The fund gives the agency flexibility to spend the money and bypasses some Council scrutiny.

Before the budget made it to the Council, the police department cut about $13 million from its proposed budget to accommodate the economic downturn. That came from overtime savings, shifting more officers to patrol jobs and absorbing some specialized units into others, among other measures.

The city’s homeless services office is anticipating evictions when state and city emergency orders expire.

When including state and federal grants, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services is expecting to spend at least $63 million in the next year. The city will work with service providers and advocates not only to attend to the needs of people living in encampments and shelters, but to support families at risk of becoming homeless.

The mayor and governor have halted evictions during the emergency. But when the crisis begins to subside, officials are worried a number of people will not be able to afford their rent or mortgages.

As it is now, roughly 2,500 people experience homelessness in Baltimore on any given night. Preventing more people from losing their homes would include providing short-term financial assistance, landlord-tenant mediation and financial counseling.

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