In this season of kings bearing gifts and Santa Claus, the denizens of City Hall are still waiting on Scrooge.
Faced with the possibility of an additional $13.3 million reduction in state funding to Baltimore, members of the City Council are looking for ways of cutting the city budget while at the same time softening the blow to city services.
The council's recommendations would be forwarded to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has the ultimate say over the municipal budget. And high among the budget-cutting proposals considered by council members is an alternative to Mr. Schmoke's plan to send city school children home for a week to save money.
"We feel that a week without school is a real problem for our children and teachers and families," said council president Mary Pat Clarke. "We're looking at a proposal to take limited furloughs citywide, in effect to give a day to a kid."
Rather than close schools for a week, council members have suggested that all city workers not already scheduled to be furloughed be required to stay home four days without pay. Such a plan would not affect workers in city agencies already hit by furloughs, such as the state's attorney's office and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mrs. Clarke said.
But Edward J. Gallagher, the city budget chief, said such a plan may be simplistic, because most of the city's payroll costs support workers in the school system, police and fire departments, the very agencies that council members insist must be protected from budgetary harm.
"They take the lion's share of the general fund," Mr. Gallagher said of the three agencies.
City officials were again forced to look at ways to save money when Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced Dec. 10 that he would again slash state spending, and proposed a $142.5 million cut in state aid to local jurisdictions.
It was the second time in two months that the former Baltimore mayor announced drastic reductions in state aid, with the first round costing the city about $25 million.
But council leaders still do not know exactly how large a reduction the city must endure because the governor's recommendation for a $13.3 million cut to the city in this current round is only a recommendation. The General Assembly, which must ratify the governor's proposal before it can take effect, does not meet until Jan. 8.
In general, the council has been a passive participant in the city's budget-making process, looking over the shoulder of the mayor's budget aides from time to time, but mostly rubber-stamping the mayor's recommendations.
However, cuts and threatened cuts to agencies once considered sacrosanct -- including the closing of city seven city libraries, the proposed school closings, and a plan, since shelved, to fire more than 250 firefighters -- has kindled an interest in the budgetary process among several council members.
For example, the council is also again considering ways of encouraging older, higher-paid city employees who are eligible for retirement benefits to take the money and leave the city payroll voluntarily.
Council members have said that for most employees, there is little incentive to leave the relative security of a city job, particularly with such a poor job market awaiting those who do. Mayor Schmoke, however, has been generally cool to early retirement incentive plans, saying they generally amount to a cash windfall for city employees and a costly raid on the city treasury.
But Mrs. Clarke said incentive plans proposed by the teachers and firefighters unions could be modified, setting a narrow "window" of time during which employees could take advantage of the incentive package and granting the city the power to end the program as soon as sufficient savings are achieved.
Mrs. Clarke also said the council will take up legislation that would make city residents begin paying a fee to have their un-recycled garbage collected.
Trash collection costs the city $11 million each year -- an amount officials are eager to reduce. Council members have said that paring the cost of trash collection from the city budget would allow them to reward city residents with a property tax cut.