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Money for nothing: What Baltimore is paying Pugh and aides not to work

There are many more important reasons for Baltimore to be concerned about the leadership limbo at City Hall during Mayor Catherine Pugh's leave of absence than the money it’s costing us. We are, of course, hopeful that she makes a full recovery from the case of pneumonia that landed her in the hospital last month, but after the entire City Council (among others) called for her resignation over the Healthy Holly scandal, it is simply a non-starter for her to return to office. Yet the only indications we’ve gotten are that she intends to do just that, and she has the power to come back at any moment. Ex-Officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is doing an admirable job at working to keep the city running, but he is clearly constrained by the uncertainty surrounding her status.

The money may not be the most important thing, but it is adding up. While Mr. Young said on Wednesday that he fired three of the six Pugh confidantes he previously put on paid leave, Baltimore is still paying the salaries of the other three, along with that of Mayor Pugh ($185,000 a year) during her leave, which began on April 1.

We don’t know precisely how much this has cost us, for a couple of reasons. Sun reporters have been unable to determine the salary for the highest-ranking of the ousted aides, Pugh Chief of Staff Bruce H. Williams, and we don’t know the precise date some of the officials were put on leave. But by using the salary of Mr. Williams’ predecessor ($183,300) and the dates when The Sun was able to confirm the paid leaves, we can make a pretty good guess. As of Wednesday, we’re looking at a total of about $29,000, with the tab increasing by more than $1,600 every day. (It was almost $2,400 a day before Mr. Young fired Afra Vance-White, Gary Brown Jr. and Poetri Deal.)

In a sense, that’s not so much. Baltimore’s operating budget adds up to nearly $3 billion a year. But there are clearly better things we could do with the money. For example, more than half of the 84 organizations that got first-year funding from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund were awarded grants for less than we’ve paid so far for people not to work in City Hall. Among them are myriad groups that seek to engage the city’s young people through sports, art, nature, leadership building, music, science, technology and more. Grants of less than $30,000 will go toward youth-focused groups dedicated to preventing teen pregnancy, teaching financial literacy, fighting blight and protecting the environment.

Unless something changes, the total will exceed the starting salary of a Baltimore City teacher ($48,914) on Sunday, May 5. Two days later, it will top the starting salary of a city police officer ($51,593). If the status quo stays the same through the summer, we’ll hit the salary of new Police Commissioner Michael Harrison ($275,000) on Sept. 22 and that of city schools CEO Sonja Santelises ($298,000) on Oct. 7.

We’d say surely this can't go on forever, but it more or less can. Nothing in the city charter puts limits on a leave by a mayor. The council has no power to remove a mayor, not even if he or she is absent for months at a time, unlike in some Maryland counties, where a council can remove an AWOL executive after 180 days. As for the six aides on paid leave, we have no idea how long that could continue. We have no indication that they are suspected of wrongdoing; it could just be that Mr. Young wants his own people around him (which would be understandable) but he doesn’t want to fire these aides in case Ms. Pugh comes back. Mr. Young has said he cannot answer questions about the leaves because they are personnel matters. So, theoretically, we could be in this state until a new mayor takes office on Dec. 8, 2020, at which point the tab would run to nearly $1 million. That’s about 20 teachers or 19 cops, and it's about the same as the city's contribution to bring the acclaimed anti-violence initiative Roca to Baltimore.

Perhaps we (and, we’d wager, plenty of other Baltimoreans) are particularly sensitive about this unearned salary business out of continued gall at former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s ability to collect her $80,000-plus pension after being forced to resign in disgrace nearly a decade ago. But it is a very tangible reminder of the absurdity of the situation we find ourselves in.

Enough is enough. Mayor Pugh, please resign.

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