City budget woes leave agencies hard-pressed

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

The brinkmanship of the budget season is always something to behold, but with the anticipated $54.1 shortfall for fiscal year 1992, the next few weeks will be an even sterner test of the mettle of Baltimore's agency heads and finance officers.

Consider, for example, the dilemma of Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Circuit Court.

Judge Kaplan is being asked to hold the court to its fiscal 1991 funding level while somehow finding a way to absorb the cost of mandated raises for 160 union employees. At the same time, he has the added problem of paying for a four-step pay enhancement for Baltimore's eight juvenile masters -- an enhancement that the Circuit judges wanted to postpone but which found its way into the budget after some of the masters appealed directly to the mayor's office, according to courthouse sources.

Caught between the mayor's insistence that he hold down spending on the one hand and a pay increase for the masters required by the mayor's office, the judge has responded with an idea of his own.

Perhaps, he has suggested, we can balance the courthouse budget by laying a few people off. Like maybe . . . the juvenile masters. And to take their place hearing juvenile cases, Judge Kaplan would reassign four of the six judges who now hear civil actions.

That would leave the civil docket "screwed up royally," acknowledged Judge Kaplan, who said most contested civil suits -- such as personal injury cases to medical malpractice -- would be postponed indefinitely. "But something has to be done," he added.

That would save about $1 million right there and, not coincidently, put pressure on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to either postpone the pay-grade increase for the masters or find the money to fund it.

"We're looking at a shortfall of $1.7 million," the judge said. City finance officials differ in their estimate of the shortfall facing Judge Kaplan, putting the figure at $850,000.

Judge Kaplan will be meeting with other members of the Circuit bench next week to discuss the possibility of laying off the city's juvenile masters and staff, then transferring the juvenile docket to the civil court judges.

The Circuit Court isn't the only agency swallowing hard.

Mayor Schmoke has even ordered the previously sacrosanct education, police and fire departments to hold the line on spending increases in next year's budget without firing front-line personnel, such as police officers, firefighters or teachers, or otherwise cutting services.

Administration officials have said privately that by not allowing agency officials to achieve savings by laying off the people who actually teach children, patrol streets or put out fires, the mayor is trying to force middle and upper management to accept layoffs, streamlining the bureaucracy without cutting services.

"The bottom line is, the mayor feels this is no more business as usual," said Clinton R. Coleman Jr., the mayor's spokesman. "It is more than a signal.

"The city is looking for every way it can to minimize the impact of the financial situation on people and services."

The Fire Department, which had requested an 11.6 percent increase in its budget for next year, was ordered to make do with $96.6 million -- an 8.5 percent increase -- without closing fire stations or laying off officers at or below the rank of captain.

The Police Department has been instructed to live within a $178 million budget -- a 5.3 percent increase over this year's budget -- without reducing the number of police officers, closing police districts or grounding the police helicopter unit.

And the education department, which gets most of its money from state and federal grants, has been told to make do with $191 million from the city general fund without eliminating any of the 5,880 teachers in the 11,000-employee school system.

The proposed outlay would be 5.5 percent more than the city spent on schools in the current budget, but $6 million less than the department had requested for the coming budget year, which begins July 1.

Perhaps predictably, agency officials have declared that prior budget cuts have already eliminated any fat from their budgets.

The new spending limitations do not cover salary increases and other inflationary costs, fire and school officials said, and would harm the ability of their departments to function efficiently.

"We don't have that many people, so we can't make up $3 million by cutting out middle management," said David L. Glenn, president of the Board of Fire Commissioners.

Mr. Glenn said the budget request the Fire Department submitted last fall would not even allow the department to fill a manpower shortage that has forced the department to choose between sending out short-staffed fire crews or running up enormous overtime costs.

He also said it would be hard to find savings through other maneuvers, such as curtailing the hours of the repair shop, reducing staffing for the fire prevention or investigations units or making cuts in the fire academy.

"You're left with cutting the battalion chiefs, and they are important to running the department," Mr. Glenn said. "It certainly isn't a healthy thing to do."

Douglas J. Nielson, a spokesman for school Superintendent Richard C. Hunter, said the total $551.2 million education budget -- including city, state and federal money -- that the school board proposed last month already contemplates the elimination of 34 vacant positions in the central administration.

"One of the things expressed by the board is we have reached the point where further cuts will begin to hurt programs," Douglas J. Neilson, a school system spokesman.

Of course, such statements are a time-honored part of the budget process.

Is the mayor willing to see substantive education programs discontinued? Is he willing to hold the state's attorney's office to its 1991 funding level even as the sudden jump in city homicides threatens to overwhelm its trial division? Is he willing to force-feed the Circuit Court a grade increase for eight masters, only to see those employees laid off and the civil docket postponed indefinitely?

"We really are in need of state assistance," says Edward J. Gallagher, the city's budget chief.

"If the state comes up with additional money, some of these decisions can be avoided. But if not, the city budget still has to be balanced," Mr. Gallagher said.

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