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City Council debates tapping surplus fund

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City Council members debated yesterday using money from the city's surplus fund to pay for police recruitment and promised school construction, with several council members splitting with the majority and tossing out alternative sources of funding.

The debate centered on two resolutions. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake introduced a nonbinding resolution to divert $2 million from the city's rainy day fund to step up police recruitment.

The proposal calls on Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration to use the $2 million from reserve funds to pay for public service announcements, banners and recruitment material geared toward high school graduates.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a separate resolution urging the mayor and Board of Estimates to return $5 million to the Baltimore City school system's $25 million construction and renovation budget. Dixon's administration shifted the money to after-school programs.

But some council members questioned the fiscal soundness of redirecting the money from the city's rainy day fund, echoing similar concerns raised by Dixon's administration.

City officials have said the fund stands at $75 million, but several council members said yesterday the fund has $82.5 million.

City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran noted that "the purpose of the rainy day fund is for unanticipated emergencies," and that several years ago when the city used rainy day funds to help bail out the school system, financial rating agencies immediately reacted negatively. "While I applaud your efforts ... we just need to be mindful that any attempt to draw down reserves, unless there is an emergency, could have ill effect."

City Councilman James B. Kraft agreed. "There is $82 million in this rainy day fund, and I think we need to keep it there," he said.

Instead, Kraft proposed forgoing the 2-cent property tax cut, which he said amounts to 20 cents a day for the average homeowner, or $5.4 million in total dollars.

"So that's $5 million that we can use for the after-school programs and we don't need to take it out of the money that we had set aside for school construction, and it also leaves $400,000 that we can use for police recruitment," said Kraft.

Curran proposed additional fees on amusement devices, such as video poker machines, which he said could raise an additional $6 million to $10 million. Curran has a bill proposing the fees pending in committee.

But other council members said that the city is in a state of emergency. "It's raining," said Clarke. "It's raining in terms of our public safety. It's raining in terms of our schools and our children and the programs that we need that all fit together to make our city safer."

"This is money that our taxpayers have directly contributed to operate the city, not to open the First National Bank of Holliday Street," she added.

"When we are facing gang violence that is growing in the city," Rawlings-Blake said, "when we are facing youth violence that is daily ... and when we are facing a murder rate that is on target for the first time since 1999 to be close to 300, I'm pretty sure that - is there anyone that doesn't think that that is an emergency?"

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