City Council gets report on savings

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore faces a $7.5 million budget shortfall between now and June, though city finance officials hope cost-saving measures already in place will make up the difference without further cuts to agencies.

"We've had a budget freeze, turned off the new hiring," city Finance Director Edward J. Gallagher said yesterday.

"We're optimistic that [spending] can be further reduced by June 30." That doesn't mean that it is going to."

Mayor Sheila Dixon took steps in October to address a $36 million shortfall in the city's $1.3 billion operating budget, including a hiring freeze, halting raises to midlevel employees and disbanding special police units to cut overtime.

"Early, decisive actions have reduced spending but a gap remains," said city Budget Director Andrew W. Kleine yesterday.

The earlier decisions reduced police overtime by 28 percent compared with last year, and Fire Department overtime is down 52 percent, Kleine said in a presentation to the City Council.

However, the Police Department is still on track to spend $5.9 million more than its budget, and Fire Department spending is projected to be $1 million over budget, he said.

The Department of Public Works, however, is projected to spend $5.8 million less than its allotment this year, Kleine said.

He noted that expected increases to the city's pension contribution could create a "tidal wave" in the next budget year.

Dixon has said that city workers will "definitely" face layoffs and that she might close some libraries and recreation centers next year to reduce spending.

City fire chief Jim Clack told the council that his agency hopes to recoup $1.5 million by collecting unpaid ambulance bills.

The department had 3,800 unsigned forms from emergency service calls, and Clack said firefighters went door to door to collect signatures. With completed forms, the department can submit paperwork to Medicare and private insurers to get payments.

City Council members had their own ideas for cost savings, suggesting that the mayor chop one of her pet projects: a planned $3 million circulator bus.

The bus would be free, taking riders on three routes in the central part of the city, as well as to the east and west of downtown.

"Three million for a bus?" asked Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "Who is going to ride it?"

This week the administration introduced a spending bill to fund the bus program with a parking tax increase previously approved by the council. The council needs to pass the legislation for the program to go forward as planned, but with the faltering economy and the new budget numbers yesterday, council members were rethinking the program.

"So this could save $3 million?" said City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who suggested delaying the appropriations measure.

Kleine, the budget director, tried to deflect questions about the circulator bus, saying that it was unclear how money would be spent if not used as the mayor has intended.

Four council members asked whether the city could use furloughs instead of layoffs to reduce the budget for next year, when the city's shortfall could be more significant.

"I would work with anyone to make sure that nobody loses their job," said Councilman James B. Kraft.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector agreed: "I would prefer to see something where everyone took a smaller hit."

Curran asked whether the city would dip into the $92.3 budget stabilization fund known as the rainy day fund.

The answer was no.

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