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Baltimore can’t afford to give sanitation workers a bonus | COMMENTARY

Councilman Eric T. Costello at Baltimore City Hall after a City Council vote.
Councilman Eric T. Costello at Baltimore City Hall after a City Council vote. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

I want to give all of our Baltimore City Department of Public Works solid waste workers a bonus. Their dedication and commitment to continuing trash and recycling collection through the pandemic has been profound.

I want to give all of our Baltimore City Health Department nurses and clinicians a bonus. Their courage and perseverance in providing COVID-19 testing throughout the city has benefited all of our residents.

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I want to give all of our Baltimore City Recreation & Parks staff, our homeless outreach workers, our firefighters and EMTs, and our water and wastewater maintenance teams a bonus for continuing to answer the call each and every day of this pandemic.

I want to give every one of our Baltimore City agency front line staff — people who have literally kept our city running through the worst pandemic in a century — a bonus as a reward for and recognition of the tireless effort they continue to put forward.

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But governing responsibly, effectively and transparently includes being honest and open about the challenges facing our city. And that means telling the truth about the state of our city’s finances, and being realistic about the choices facing our city as we continue to address this pandemic.

As the chair of the City Council’s Budget & Appropriations Committee for the past four years, I have held dozens of hearings and workshops on a regular basis so that our residents, businesses and other elected officials understand the ins-and-outs of our city’s budget.

COVID-19 has severely diminished Baltimore City’s budget projections. Specifically, COVID-19 resulted in a projected FY2020 surplus of $26.4 million in February cratering into a $14.3 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year just four months later. The city must now tap our Rainy Day Fund to close out FY2020 — a funding source reserved for catastrophic situations. We are now staring down a projected shortfall of $103.1 million for FY2021, with uncertainty on the horizon for our economy for future years.

To facilitate Baltimore City’s response to COVID-19 — a response that has led to some of the lowest case and positivity rates in the state of Maryland over the last few months — city agencies have set up a series of measures that we anticipate being reimbursed for through a variety of federal funding streams. These federal funding streams include $103 million from the CARES Act, plus multiple rounds of additional funds from other federal sources.

These dollars paid for meals for families and older adults impacted by the economic downturn, for housing for our homeless and housing insecure residents, for recovery grants for our small businesses rocked by COVID-19-related closures and restrictions, and a variety of other responses to this pandemic. In other words, this money is being used to provide critical economic, social and public health pillars of support for our city.

However, this unprecedented level of federal support will eventually be exhausted, with the city quickly approaching the limits of the federal government’s support for COVID-19 relief as outlined above. Every dollar the city spends on COVID-19 response above that collective federal dollar figure has to come from somewhere else — in this case, the city’s general fund — a funding stream expected to be significantly strained over the next few years.

Raising the idea of bonuses for one set of our incredible agency staff while neglecting to recognize the bravery and sacrifice of other departments is insulting to those departments. Doing so with no plan to pay for the bonuses aside from the uninformed assumption that “the federal government will pick up the tab!” is actively dishonest and patently irresponsible — it’s writing checks that our workers will not be able to cash.

I wish we could provide all of our city government employees — who continue to set the standard throughout the state and country with their work in this unprecedented time — bonuses that they richly deserve. But as that is not possible in this fiscal climate, I will not insult our employees or our residents with wishful thinking or disingenuous advocacy.

Eric T. Costello (Eric.Costello@baltimorecity.gov) is a Baltimore City councilman representing the 11th District who also chairs the budget & appropriations committee.

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