Added surplus greases budget approval

The Baltimore Sun

As if plucking money from thin air to help smooth an already silky budget debate, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon found $4.7 million for new programs yesterday just hours before passage of the city's $2.65 billion budget.

The additional money, which will come in part from a budget surplus that is now expected to be larger than forecast four weeks ago, includes $383,000 for mental health programs, $412,000 more for after-school initiatives and $790,000 for pools.

At a meeting before the City Council's vote to approve the budget, Dixon and City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's budget committee, read aloud items that would receive the newfound cash.

In response to media questions, the administration released a spreadsheet after the budget was approved, showing how $4.3 million would be distributed. Another $375,000, not included in the list, will be carried forward for summer youth jobs and for miscellaneous council expenses, according to a more complete document obtained by The Sun.

In May, finance officials said they expected to close the current budget with $19 million in extra money. That's on top of $24.6 million in extra revenue already spent in over-budget overtime costs by police and fire departments.

Although Dixon and City Council members face an election in September, the fiscal year 2008 budget slid through the council with unusual ease, due in part to the surplus.

"I'm pleased that once again we were able to use the surplus in a way that adds value to the lives of our young people," said Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, referring to the use of the surplus that was announced earlier this year.

Also yesterday, Rawlings-Blake introduced a resolution to create a community restoration fund. The program - to receive $1 million of the newfound surplus - would provide matching grants to certain residents to improve or renovate their homes.

All but two council members voted to support the budget. Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. voted against it and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke abstained. On a separate vote, Councilman James B. Kraft voted against the proposed tax rate.

"This budget ignores the crisis in our schools and on our streets," Mitchell said, explaining his vote. "I'm not voting for the status quo."

One of the only spending controversies in this year's budget debate was a decision by Dixon to siphon $5 million from school construction and put it toward after-school programs. The money was part of a $25 million pledge to schools made by Dixon's predecessor, Martin O'Malley.

Dixon officials maintain the money was earmarked for construction only and that it will be restored when the school system identifies needed projects.

"It's not over, but it hasn't been answered," said Clarke, who has criticized the decision. "It needs to get restored this year while we have some money."

The budget, which Dixon is expected to sign, would increase spending by nearly 11 percent. Much of that increase is driven by $160 million in state grants to reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants.

The budget continues a commitment made by O'Malley in 2005 to reduce the property tax rate by 2 cents annually for five years. In July, the property tax rate will decrease from $2.288 to $2.268 per $100 of assessed value - a $70 savings for the owner of a home valued at $350,000 for tax purposes.

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