Council actions sweeten budget for Baltimore


The Baltimore Board of Estimates approved yesterday a $1.79 billion operating budget with something for everybody: a 5-cent tax rate cut for property owners, better pension benefits for city workers who gave up a pay raise, more foot patrolmen and housing inspectors -- about whom city politicians can boast -- and a $5.2 million surplus that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke can use in a pinch.

In an election year, who could ask for anything more?

"It's a win-win situation," Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, said after the board approved the fiscal 1992 spending plan which begins July 1 and set the property tax rate at $5.90 per $100 of assessed value. "This is what happens when you work."

Despite what he called "tough times," Mayor Schmoke said the city was able to take "some prudent, responsible actions that will benefit the people of this city."

The Board of Estimates -- a panel of the city's top elected and appointed officials -- approved the budget and set the tax rate just minutes after the City Council approved both measures in its chamber.

It was the final step in the city's budget process. Although budget preparations began in the fall with finance officials estimating revenues and approximating the cost of operating a billion dollar municipal corporation, the elements that define this budget were hammered out recently by the administration, the City Council and union leaders.

The additional revenue needed to lop 5 cents off the city's $5.95 property tax rate (the highest in Maryland), to hire 50 more foot patrolmen and 18 new housing inspectors and to improve pension benefits for police, firefighters, city workers and elected officials resulted from several key bills that moved through the council in the last two weeks.

To help pay for the new patrolmen and housing inspectors, the cityincreased by $7.50 a ton the amount of money it charges private haulers and other jurisdictions to use the city's incinerators and landfills.

In addition, two bills that changed aspects of the city pension system received final approval yesterday. The measures increase from 8 to 8 1/2 percent the rate of return for the city's pension portfolio that city finance officials can assume in drafting the budget. That change reduced the city's contribution to city retirement funds, freeing up millions of dollars that could be used to improve pension benefits.

It also produced a one-time surplus of $5.2 million that finance director William R. Brown said would remain in the budget for use in an emergency or "to strengthen the city's [overall] financial position." Except for $1 million that is set aside in a contingency fund, the city does not have an emergency revenue pool.

Firefighters and police officers, as well as leaders of the municipal employees' unions, crowded the council chambers during much of yesterday, awaiting passage of the pension benefit bills.

For Detective Errol Etting, the improved benefits mean that in four years, after 20 years on the force, he can retire and collect half his salary.

"It enables us to get out and have a second career," he said.

Although the changes to the Fire and Police Employees Retirement System were less than the unions originally proposed, the Schmoke administration has pledged to work with them in the coming year on their requests, said Don W. Helms, president of Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police.

In another action, the Council restored a $1.6 million cut in the education budget after receiving assurances from the school board president that the board would move on a plan to rezone city schools.

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