City Council does its job

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakesays the City Council is putting Baltimore residents at risk from increased crime, among other calamities, because of its preliminary decision to cut about $6 million from her $2.3 billion budget proposal. She has called the effort, led by Council PresidentBernard C."Jack" Young, to divert some money into increased funding for recreation centers, youth employment and after school programs "unadvisable, unworkable and irresponsible." Indeed, there is an opportunity cost associated with many of the council's proposed cuts — if not so dire a consequence as the mayor predicts. But the council should nonetheless stick to its guns. It is supposed to be a fiscal check and balance to the mayor's extraordinary budgeting authority, and it's time the council started acting like it.

The cut the mayor has focused most heavily on is a 2 percent reduction in the Police Department's administrative budget and a 10 percent reduction in the budget for executive protection — the police unit that protects the mayor and other top officials. The council also approved a cut of $500,000 to the department's $214 million patrol budget, which eliminates 10 vacant positions. In a statement released after the council's vote on Monday, Ms. Rawlings-Blake suggested that reduction would make Baltimore less safe: "Other cities across the nation have made cuts to their police forces, and crime increased. Until now, Baltimore has invested in an aggressive plan to hire new police officers, and crime has declined to historic lows."

The particular reductions the council made may well have some effect on the operations of the department, but not necessarily the ones Ms. Rawlings-Blake predicts. The reductions could, for example, prevent the department from hiring a civilian fiscal oversight officer. Cuts to executive protection would likely mean that the police commissioner would simply reallocate other resources to make sure the unit can serve its purpose. And eliminating vacant positions could force the department to rely more heavily on overtime. But compared to the level of cuts in other cities that the mayor alluded to, these reductions are infinitesimal and manageable.

The other spending cuts are spread across a variety of departments — finance, health, housing, law, public works and others — and mostly target vacant positions, new positions the mayor sought to create in this budget, and enhancements to programs or information technology projects. The mayor's office can and does make an argument for why the proposed spending for each of those items is desirable. But eliminating them would hardly bring city government to its knees.

The big picture here is that the council is, uncharacteristically, exercising a modicum of genuine fiscal oversight. Although the council holds extensive hearings every year on the mayor's budget proposal, it rarely exercises its authority to cut spending. The last time it did, then-Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blakeand Mr. Young led something of an insurrection in 2009 against Mayor Sheila Dixon, proposing cuts of about $1.3 million in an effort to restore funding to parks and recreation facilities (coincidentally, the same things Mr. Young is fighting Mayor Rawlings-Blake over). In the end, Ms. Dixon negotiated behind the scenes with council members and wound up getting her way on all but a $200,000 cut to the Office of the Inspector General, which she then reversed with a legally questionable line-item veto. Before that, the council had a few disagreements in the 1990s with then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke. But the vast majority of the time, the council acts as a glorified rubber stamp.

There's no guarantee that the council's efforts will lead the mayor to restore funding for youth services, though there is an effort afoot by city activists to pressure her to do so. Ms. Rawlings-Blake could leave the money unspent to provide a greater cushion for next year or could use it to make a small reduction in the property tax. But that should not dissuade council members from giving final approval to the cuts. If Baltimore is going to put itself on a sustainable fiscal path and, ultimately, bring its property tax rate down to a level that is competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, this kind of scrutiny will need to be routine. The Baltimore County Council, for example, makes substantial cuts to the executive's budget every year; in fiscal 2007, it cut $6.6 million from then-ExecutiveJames T. Smith Jr.'s budget. That didn't cause a political crisis, and it shouldn't spark one every time the City Council tries to do its job either.

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