Longtime city budget czar to retire

Baltimore's top financial officer and longtime budget writer said Monday he will retire from city government, the first Cabinet-level departure since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake won the Democratic primary this month.

Though not a household name, Edward J. Gallagher has been a behind-the-scenes force in shaping every Baltimore spending plan since he was hired in 1983. The city's finance director since 2005, he plans to remain in the job until the mayor's office completes a national search for a replacement.

Rawlings-Blake called him "one of our city's unsung heroes." Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said: "He is the man."

And Gov. Martin O'Malley, who as mayor promoted him to his current job, said he always had "the utmost respect for his integrity" and recalled that Gallagher was the first official he asked to stay on upon becoming mayor in 1999. "He's honest as the day is long," O'Malley said.

In recent years, Gallagher has overseen the accumulation of a rainy-day fund and pushed policies that nudged Baltimore's credit rating from A+ to AA. He drew the ire of fire and police unions last year by shaping a deal that cut ballooning pension benefits.

Though many of Gallagher's ideas kept the city on stable financial footing in the long term, his City Hall reputation is that of the consummate "no man" for reining in the spending ideas of the city's political leaders.

Gallagher recalled William Donald Schaefer haranguing him after the then-mayor noticed a favorite garden-focused project had been cut from the city's Recreation and Parks Department budget. Schaefer pointed at Gallagher and yelled: "You cut my flowers!"

The city finance director also disliked the long tradition of fancy lunches the day of City Council meetings, a battle he eventually won when Rawlings-Blake became mayor and cut back the perk. Salmon cakes went out. Deli sandwiches came in.

Still, Gallagher's command of nuances within the $2.3 billion city budget and his direct, no-nonsense manner has allowed him to maintain a professional — though sometimes frosty — relationship with both the mayor's office and the City Council. As a sign of respect, the last two mayors and most City Hall staffers have referred to him as Mr. Gallagher.

A slight man of Irish heritage, Gallagher, 76, lights up during budget hearings, warms to a debate and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Baltimore's thick budget book.

He's not as well-regarded for his fashion choices. Dixon said she was so surprised by his pairing of plaid button-down shirts and "interesting" ties that she started giving him neckties for his birthday.

There has been one area in which Gallagher has shown limited patience: the weekly Board of Estimates meeting. He routinely sits in a front row, middle seat, and as the meetings wind down, he gently pads his feet up and down, readying himself for a speedy departure.

Successive City Hall administrations have relied on Gallagher to discuss budget challenges publicly. He's been quoted in The Baltimore Sun calling the budget "tough" (1991); predicting it was "going to hurt" (1992); saying "we're freezing everything" (1995); and warning of "the most significant service reductions I've seen" (2002).

"Ed Gallagher invented the Chicken Little speech and gave it to perfection every year," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said.

Clarke, who was president of the City Council from 1987 to 1995, said Gallagher has distinguished himself with his human touch.

"Anyone can cut a budget, anyone can make dire predictions," Clarke said. "Ed Gallagher had the wisdom to keep us solvent through the most trying of times."

After many years of budget cuts, Gallagher said last year's budget was the toughest. He oversaw slicing roughly $120 million from the city's spending plan.

"We're a poor municipality in terms of taxable wealth," Gallagher said in an interview Monday.

Going forward, Gallagher said, the city's biggest budget challenge "is obviously to grow our population."

It's not a new problem. He said the city's slow leak of residents has been a concern "since the first day I got here."



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