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After acrimony, Baltimore City Council passes Rawlings-Blake's budget

As protesters decried a cut in library funding, the Baltimore City Council on Monday gave final approval to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's $2.6 billion operating budget — which includes a property tax cut and shrinks city government to its smallest size in decades.

As protesters decried a cut in library funding, the Baltimore City Council gave final approval Monday to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's $2.6 billion operating budget — which cuts property taxes and shrinks city government to its smallest size in decades.

The budget deal, which passed 12-0, came after the council and mayor fought for weeks over $4.2 million that Rawlings-Blake did not initially include for youth programs. The fight escalated this month when Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young threatened to shut down the government and Rawlings-Blake accused him of "grandstanding."

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The mayor agreed last week to add the $4.2 million, which will pay for after-school and community school programming for about 2,500 students. To free the money, she said she needed to cut funding elsewhere — including $100,000 for library materials.

That prompted library supporters to protest Monday outside City Hall, holding signs that said, "Our kids need libraries." Charlie Metz, a member of the Friends of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, said the city's libraries need more money, not less.

He noted that the city is considering selling bonds to build a new library as part of the proposed redevelopment of Port Covington. Meanwhile, he said, existing libraries are being shorted.

"We have a lack of resources," Metz said. "We have a lack of books. We don't have enough money for librarians. What has happened with this budget agreement is: We've been shortchanged again. ... We find that intolerable."

Rawlings-Blake and Young have been at loggerheads over the budget since the mayor unveiled her proposal in March for the budget year that begins July 1.

Young and the council's budget committee chairwoman, Helen Holton, threatened a government shutdown unless Rawlings-Blake fully funded the youth programs, including $167,000 for day care programs at Waverly and Northwood schools.

But after Monday's vote, Young and Rawlings-Blake sent a joint news release hailing the budget's passage.

"This has been a challenging process that required tough choices to be made from all sides," Rawlings-Blake said in the statement. "I am happy that we as City leaders were able to reach a compromise on how to best serve the citizens of Baltimore.

"Although there may be some difficult decisions ahead, we all agree that making sound fiscal decisions at this time outweigh[s] the risk of making poor financial choices that will impact future generations to come," the mayor said.

Young called the budget "lean" and said it "didn't offer many areas for trimming."

"But my Council colleagues and I were determined to comb over the budget in the least disruptive way possible to find savings to help restore the $4.2 million in funding cuts," he said in the news release.

The approved budget cuts $1 million in merit-based raises for city managers, reduces funding for bridge repairs and preventive maintenance by $170,000, and cuts $100,000 each from the library system and anti-litter efforts, among other reductions.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't affect anything that caused great harm," Young said. "I didn't want to see anybody cut, but it had to come from somewhere. ... We tried to do those that were less disruptive to city services. I just wish we could have had a better budget."

The budget includes a small property tax cut for owner-occupied homes, $6 million to equip police officers with body cameras and $6 million more to run the Charm City Circulator. It assumes a 4 percent increase in the city's parking tax — a move the council has yet to approve.

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The budget funds fewer than 10,000 full-time employees using city money — the smallest city-funded workforce in modern history, according to budget director Andrew Kleine. Another 3,000 employees are paid using state and federal grant money.

The budget also contains about a $10 million increase in money for the city school system. That figure includes $2.8 million for employees who are leaving the system and being paid for unused leave.

Young said it was unclear whether this level of funding is enough to meet state requirements for how much Baltimore must contribute to the schools.

Still in question is whether the city underfunded the school system by $2.8 million. The Maryland Department of Education is expected to determine whether the city owes the school system the money or school officials must cut it from their spending plan.

"We don't know anything about the school system budget yet," he said. "But we have a balanced budget, and we'll move forward on it."

The budget deal almost didn't pass Monday. At the council's 5 p.m. meeting, only 11 of 15 members were in attendance to vote twice on the budget during the same meeting — a special procedure that requires 12 voting members. Young called for a recess about 5:30 p.m. and Councilman William "Pete" Welch arrived shortly thereafter to cast the deciding vote.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke praised the deal the council reached with the mayor.

"It was a lot of hard work all around," she said. "There was tough talk and hard negotiations. It means a lot to a lot of people and kids and their moms and dads and grandparents."

But Councilman Robert W. Curran said some of the cuts will hurt. He was particularly concerned about reductions to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter and other animal services. But, he said, he's received assurances from the Rawlings-Blake administration that officials will make up for those reductions through supplemental appropriations later.

"I'm somewhat disappointed about some of the cuts, but they're necessary to make the $4.2 million whole," Curran said. "I'm particularly concerned about the cuts to animal services. I've been working behind the scenes on those issues."

Holton called the budget negotiations "some of the toughest of my 21-year career." She lamented the trade-offs in the budget, including the reduction in library funding. But, she said, last year's civil unrest underscored the importance of making sure children have safe places to go after school.

"Tough choices had to be made," Holton said. "After last year, we need to make sure that we do all we can do for our children."

Two other financial bills were introduced Monday.

The Rawlings-Blake administration formally introduced a tax credit for police officers who buy homes in Baltimore, and Councilman Eric T. Costello proposed a charter amendment that would require 16 key city agencies to be audited every two years.

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