City cuts fire, police OT and extends hiring freeze

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore is slashing police and fire overtime and extending a hiring freeze to grapple with a $36.5 million shortfall brought on by declining revenues and a projected spike in public safety costs, city officials told The Baltimore Sun yesterday.

The initial round of cuts should be enough to keep Baltimore's budget balanced - provided the economy doesn't get any worse, city officials said. But with global financial markets in disarray and the state considering reductions in aid to local governments to solve its own budget problems, more reductions could be on the way.

"My hope is that this does not take away from the momentum we are building," Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday. "We hope that people will ride through this. That is what I'm hoping."

The city's action comes days after Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration trimmed $300 million from the state budget and amid spending cuts in several Maryland counties. Prince George's County, for example, has ordered furloughs for employees, a step that Baltimore has yet to take.

The city's problems stem from a simultaneous $15 million drop in recordation and transfer taxes as a result of the weak housing market and from a projected $21 million increase in police and fire overtime. The cuts will take effect Nov. 1 and amount to 2 percent of the city's $2.1 billion budget.

The current round of cuts is designed to avoid any direct impact on city services. However, Dixon said yesterday that she's considering cutting trash collection to once a week and reducing recycling days. She also said that layoffs to the city's 15,000-person work force are still on the table but that she hopes to avoid them.

"It is going to be a matter of employees stepping up," she said. "It is a matter of saying, 'I'm doing more to get the job done. The goal is to ride through this recession and not lose my job.' "

Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty said that by acting early - the city is just four months into this budget year - the mayor hopes to stave off deeper cuts.

"The message we're sending to everyone across the city is this is the first round. Be as vigilant as you can. Cut as much excess as you can," he said, noting that the city doesn't yet have complete spending figures from the first three months of the budget year. "We'd be foolish not to let everyone know that we would anticipate additional cuts."

Most of the savings - $18.9 million - come from keeping in place a ban on hiring employees at nonemergency agencies. The freeze has been in place since November 2007, leaving the city with 425 vacant positions in the affected agencies. The city will also save $6.1 million by reclaiming funds that have been appropriated to agencies for purchases that have not yet been made.

The city will also delay $2.2 million in pay increases for middle managers to make their compensation competitive with their colleagues in the surrounding counties.

"There are going to be a lot of disappointed people," Thomaskutty said. "But tough times require tough decisions."

An additional $10.8 million comes from disbanding some police units, moving some Fire Department employees out of headquarters and into the field, putting off some fire equipment purchases and delaying training.

Glen Middleton, the chief of the city's biggest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the cuts were unfortunate. But he applauded the mayor's decision to spread the pain of the cuts throughout city government.

"In the previous administration, public safety was always exempted," he said. "She's the first mayor I've seen in some time who's spread the pain to every department when it comes to tightening the belt."

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate of the fire officers union praised Fire Chief Jim Clack for not taking "the shotgun approach" but instead combing carefully through that agency's budget to locate cuts that would have "a negligible" effect on the fire officers.

But Bob Cherry, the president-elect of the police union, said he worried that cuts to his department could threaten the gains made so far in reducing crime. Homicides are down about 30 percent this year, and shootings are down 15 percent. Police overtime projections are about $5 million less than last year's.

"I would hope public safety and public education would be two areas that are the last to cut," he said.

The city isn't banning police overtime but to prevent this cost from ballooning this year, police commanders will move a number of officers into vacant patrol jobs. Those positions have been staffed by officers working extra shifts. The housing unit - now 32 officers assigned to the city's low-income residents - will go to the Southern and Southeastern police districts. Those two districts have the highest concentration of public housing.

Southern District Maj. Scott Bloodsworth said the extra officers could actually allow police to keep a closer eye on public housing. Bloodsworth said his plans include forming a squad specific to the Cherry Hill-Brooklyn corridor, which has a heavy gang and drug presence, and adding an officer to the Federal Hill bicycle patrol.

Shirley Foulks, president of the Cherry Hill Tenants Association, said public housing residents would be disappointed that the housing unit was being broken up. At nearly 1,400 units, Cherry Hill Homes is the largest housing community in the city. "Housing needs the special attention," she said.

Also three of the four officers assigned to the department's marine unit will move to patrol the Inner Harbor. That leaves one officer in charge of the department's boats. Thomaskutty, the deputy mayor, noted that the Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard, the Maryland Transportation Authority police and the Fire Department all have boats that can provide coverage to the Inner Harbor.

Thirteen officers assigned to work with specific ethnic communities such as Hispanics and Asians will be transferred to patrol the Central District. And crime analysts in the districts will be put back into the field, leaving the work of reviewing crime statistics to planning officials in headquarters.

City Hall security, frequently staffed by police working overtime, will be slashed on weekends and holidays, saving about $240,000. The Police Department also is renegotiating cell phone plans and has pulled back 40 cars from officers who were allowed to drive their department vehicles after hours.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

CLOSING THE GAP

Where the problem came from:

* $15 million drop in recordation and transfer tax revenue

* $21 million in extra police and fire overtime

How the city plans to solve it:

* Hiring freeze extension: $18.9 million

* Police Department cuts: $6.8 million

* Reclaiming unspent funds: $6.1 million

* Fire Department cuts: $4 million

* Delayed middle-manager raises: $2.2 million

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