Mayor Martin O'Malley prepared the city yesterday for "more loss, sacrifice and pain" as fiscal shortfalls, war in Iraq and a stubborn drug trade threaten to derail three years of progress that has made Baltimore a leader in urban renewal.
"The state of the city is improving," O'Malley said during a speech before City Council and a crowd of dignitaries that included allies such as Maryland Attorney General Joseph J. Curran Jr. and potential rivals such as city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "In 2003, we must steel our resolve as a people to overcome the threats and challenges on the road before us."
In a hushed voice the mayor ended his speech by saying, "Baltimore's journey is led by the spirit of freedom, and hell itself will not block our path."
O'Malley said city employees are the linchpin for the city's future fiscal health. Balancing the city's fiscal 2004 budget without layoffs will require concessions on health benefits from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he said.
"We must look at the areas of the budget that are growing most quickly, the greatest of which is the cost of employee health benefits," O'Malley said. "This will require sacrifice on the part of every city employee."
AFSCME President Glenard S. Middleton Sr. said after the speech that the mayor should consider cuts to his staff.
"The budget deficit should not be balanced on the back of the workers," Middleton said. "He wants sacrifices, but sacrifices should start at the top."
City officials estimate that city workers pay $17 per month for individual health benefits, a third of what average private sector employees contribute. Negotiations are expected to begin next week as the city enters what many say will be a grueling budget season.
O'Malley said the city will receive substantially less state and federal funding while being required to shoulder greater fiscal responsibilities with homeland security.
"Baltimore is about to be tested by a state government where the proposed remedy for a largely self-inflicted deficit evokes the images of a rudderless riverboat casino, more than it does a proud and patriotic state in war time," O'Malley said. "We don't have the power to create gambling gimmicks."
Meanwhile, O'Malley continued, the city is continuing to fight a costly battle with "brutal and entrenched drug trades."
"We vowed that 2002 would be the year we put the drug trade on the run," he said. "It was the year we put a record number of children into body bags -- 34."
O'Malley began his speech recounting the accomplishments of his administration's first three years in office: reducing violent crime by 30 percent; recording the fewest homicides since 1988; spearheading economic development initiatives that have led to a 50 percent increase in home prices; and doubling drug treatment funding to $58 million. He also praised the city's school system but had harsh words for its administrators.
"We have made tremendous progress removing the one barrier in our control, inadequate education funding," he said. "This year we must remove the final barrier of ineffective management."
He said later that he wants to appoint Baltimore school board members who are more fiscally responsible. He called the school system's budget crisis "unforgivable" and hoped business partnerships would "spark a wholesale change in antiquated and inefficient fiscal and administrative practices."
Looking ahead to 2010
About a third of the mayor's speech was spent peering seven years into the future, detailing the accomplishments the city may achieve by 2010.
He portrayed a utopian city where "all children are loved;" where East Baltimore is dramatically redeveloped; where home values rise; where biotech and a high-speed train connection with Washington fuels population growth; and where his "Believe" campaign is credited as the catalyst for the city's turnaround.
City Council President Sheila Dixon said she wanted more details for such a wish list. But O'Malley was quick to point out he knows the city has a long way to go.
"We are not there yet," he said. "But as the state of our city improves each year, we are getting there."