Young says his plan would keep open rec centers, fire companies

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young unveiled a plan Monday that he says would allow all of the city's fire companies and recreation centers to remain open, despite a budget shortfall.

Young says the city also could double funding for youth summer jobs and after-school programs under his proposal, which calls for cutting $7 million from city agencies and finding $10 million in revenue from other sources.

"This is hearing the cries of the people," Young said. "They have clearly articulated at every budget hearing … that they want to make sure there are afterschool programs, summer jobs for our youth, and rec centers to stay open."

Young's proposal would prevent some of the more painful cuts from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget plan, which closes a $48 million shortfall in the city's $3 billion operating budget. The council, which has heard weeks of testimony on the spending plan, has until the end of the month to pass a balanced budget.

Rawlings-Blake said budget analysts and the city's lawyers were reviewing Young's plan, which she received Monday, and that it was premature for her to make a decision on his proposal.

"I'm certainly going to take a look at it," the mayor said. "It's too early to say whether any of these ideas will fly."

While the city's fire and police unions say they support Young's plan, as do youth activists, it is unclear whether the full council will rally behind it. Young plans to discuss his proposal at a Thursday budget committee hearing and introduce amendments to the mayor's budget in the coming weeks.

Young says he can trim nearly $7 million from city agencies through cuts that include eliminating more than 50 vacant positions. He also would take $6.5 million from a health care rainy day fund, using the money in part to lessen the impact of Rawlings-Blake's planned increases in health costs for current employees and retirees.

The mayor and finance officials say her proposal's increases in employee costs would bring the city's generous benefits package more in line with other jurisdictions. The city's fixed costs, such as health care, have grown drastically in recent years, and the health care overhaul is seen as one way to rein in such expenditures.

Young's proposal assumes that the city's speed cameras will generate about $15 million in revenue in the coming year, as they have this year. Budget officials predict that although the city has installed more cameras, revenues will decline by $3.5 million as drivers adjust their behavior to avoid tickets. Young wants to devote the speed camera proceeds — which must be used for public safety — to keep the fire companies open.

He hopes to increase rec center funding by as much as $2.8 million, fund an additional $1.6 million in summer jobs for young people and boost funds for after-school programs by $4.6 million. He also would reverse planned cuts to the Experience Corps program, which pays retirees to help in city classrooms.

Young and the other council members heard weeks of testimony regarding the budget proposal the administration rolled out in March. That plan closes the shortfall through a number of cuts and by increasing health care costs for employees and retirees.

Rawlings-Blake proposed permanently closing three of the city's 55 fire companies, eliminating a system of rolling company closures that has been in place for three years. Firefighter unions strongly oppose the closures and say they could slow response times to fires.

The mayor also has warned that as many as 14 of the city's more than 50 rec centers could be shuttered in August if private operators cannot be found to run them. Rawlings-Blake plans to boost funding and programs at 30 of the centers, while turning over the other centers to third-party groups or the school system.

In 2009, Rawlings-Blake, then council president, and Young, then the budget committee chair, teamed up to propose changes to Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget.

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