The city of Baltimore is facing a $21 million deficit at a time when it is tapping its rainy-day fund to lend the school system $8 million, City Council members learned last night.
Three city departments -- police, public works and transportation -- expect to end the fiscal year millions of dollars in the red, officials said at a hearing before the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee.
The Police Department will exceed its budget by $9.8 million, the Department of Public Works projects a $9.4 million deficit, while the Department of Transportation expects to overspend by $5.2 million. Other problems include shortfalls of $818,000 in the Fire Department and $978,000 in Recreation and Parks.
Some of the overruns will be offset by surpluses in other departments, budget officials said.
"How can we allow that to happen?" Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo Jr., chairman of the committee, asked Thomas Driscoll, the deputy budget chief who presented the bad news. "It doesn't make any sense."
Driscoll offered explanations for some of the cost overruns, saying many were because of agency overtime or expenses related to Tropical Storm Isabel. Agency heads were to provide more detailed explanations when the hearing continues tomorrow and Friday.
When asked how the city would make up the shortfall by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, Driscoll was less specific.
"It's a very good question," he said, before going on to note that the city could make up some of the difference by maintaining a hiring freeze and tapping a surplus from debt service.
Revenues from the state motor vehicle fund are projected to come in $2.3 million higher than expected, and that money could be used to offset some of the deficit, he said.
The city overspent its budget by about the same amount last year, and managed to cover its costs largely by using a surplus from debt service, Driscoll said.
D'Adamo suggested that the city tax cell phones or impose a $1 fee on tickets for professional sports events, which he said were mostly attended by residents of outlying counties.
Council members expressed some concern that city departments were on track to overspend the $2.16 billion budget passed in June, at a time when the council is considering lending the school system $8 million. The loan is part of a proposed deal to help the schools cover a $58 million deficit.
But budget woes seemed secondary to many members when the first department head to speak, city police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, testified after Driscoll. Clark was there to discuss his projected deficit, which was mainly due to police overtime, according to documents submitted to the council.
But council members spent much of the hearing grilling Clark on crime-fighting strategies and the city's stubbornly high murder rate.
"It's hard for me to justify crime's down [overall] when murders stayed the same," D'Adamo said.
Clark said the majority of killings occur in a few neighborhoods, between victims and perpetrators who have criminal records.
Looking ahead to the 2005 fiscal year beginning July 1, Clark said that under the budget target given him by the city administration, he would have to cut 186 police officers and more than 20 civilian employees -- the equivalent of eliminating an entire district.