Rawlings-Blake to propose 1 percent spending increase

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will propose increasing city spending by 1 percent in the coming fiscal year but does not plan to raise taxes, according to budget documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Instead, she would close a $65 million budget shortfall with "tough but targeted cuts."

Rawlings-Blake is scheduled to present her $2.29 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to the Board of Estimates Wednesday morning. A spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the specifics of the proposal.

Libraries would reduce their hours, residents would be charged for bulk trash pickup and some after-school programs would be trimmed. Hours would be cut at the city's 311 call center, graffiti removal and tree maintenance would be scaled back, and funding for animal services would be cut.

Rawlings-Blake will not propose significant cuts to fire and police, as she threatened to do in a doomsday budget last year. She will pledge to fully fund the city's obligation to public schools.

City workers, many of whom were threatened with layoffs in the last budget cycle, need not fear massive job cuts in the coming year, according to the documents. About 400 vacant positions would be abolished or not funded, but there would be no widespread layoffs.

City workers would continue to face furloughs, but they would receive a 2 percent cost-of-living increase to offset lost wages. Current workers and retirees would see cuts in prescription drug benefits, resulting in about $4.5 million savings to the city.

Glennard Middleton, president of the union that represents most of the city's blue-collar workers, said that both the furlough days and the drug plan cuts would have to be negotiated as part of a contract.

"We have a collective bargaining agreement, we negotiate on hours and all types of benefits," said Middleton, who heads the Baltimore chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "This has not been negotiated."

He said many of the union's members live at the poverty line and would not be able to pay the increased drug costs.

"Once they pay their necessary bills, house bills, gas and electric and put some food on the table, sometimes they don't even have money to pay for their medications," he said.

Rawlings-Blake will also propose a new model for recreation centers in her budget. Recreation and parks director Gregory Bayor told The Baltimore Sun last month that he hoped to find nonprofits or other groups to run as many as one-third of the city's 55 rec centers.

"Closing them is not going to work," Bayor said at the time. "I always want to be able to say that under my leadership the city has at least 55 rec centers. I think we're actually going to be able to open some that are closed now."

Bishop Douglas Miles, president of the interfaith group BUILD and a member of a task force that analyzed the city's recreation centers, said he was concerned that locations that were turned over to third-party groups would not remain open in the long run.

"We're having some real reservations about shifting the centers to nonprofits, given the fiscal constraints," Miles said. "It's the city's responsibility to provide recreation, not nonprofits."

The cuts that Rawlings-Blake will propose are far less drastic than those she floated at the outset of the budget process last year, when the city faced a $121 million budget deficit. To close the gap without raising taxes, she said then, the city would have to lay off 600 city workers — including hundreds of firefighters and police officers — shutter half of the recreation centers and close some pools.

Ultimately, Rawlings-Blake and the City Council agreed to a package that included $50 million in new taxes and $70 million in cuts to balance the budget.

Finance officials reported earlier this month that the new taxes are likely to generate $10 million less than they had anticipated. But the officials said the city would not be forced to dip into reserve funds to cover the difference because expenses also were lower than expected.

Revenue from speed cameras, meanwhile, has increased by more than $10 million in the last year.

The amount of the shortfall could change, depending on state and federal contributions to the city budget. Finance officials had been anticipating a $81 million shortfall earlier this year, but revised their projections.

The current estimate of $65 million "is based on updated revenue projections, and likely state aid included in the Governor's budget, which remains in the legislative process," mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty wrote in an email.

O'Doherty declined to comment on the specifics of the mayor's budget.

Rawlings-Blake's proposal marks the third consecutive year of deep cuts to city services. Revenues from property taxes are projected to flatten after a decade of rapid growth. The city has reaped only slightly more revenue from income taxes than last year, despite boosting rates to the highest levels permitted by law.

Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said that the modest cuts that Rawlings-Blake will propose are to be expected in an election year.

"Public employees and their families turn out to vote at a very high rate," Crenson said. "In an election year it's generally not good policy to threaten the jobs or propose pay cuts for public employees."

Although politicians typically threaten cuts to key programs such as police and fire departments to build support for new taxes, he said, they shy from trimming those services in election years.

"Opponents could say she's putting neighborhoods at risk," he said. "You don't want that kind of coverage."

For the second consecutive year, the city would not pay into an affordable housing fund that was established five years ago to win council approval to for the publicly funded construction of a hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center.

When the hotel was being negotiated in 2005 and 2006, many council members said they would support the deal only if it included ongoing contributions to the fund, which was intended to eliminate blighted blocks and spur construction of affordable homes.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who had opposed the hotel deal, said two projects that were to have received money from the fund in communities she represents have long been stalled.

Work hasn't begun on a project in Pen Lucy, she said, while progress has been incremental in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello.

"That fund was the residents' and the citizens' side of that hotel," Clarke said. "They're not using the funding that was promised. I'm sure that these are not the only two projects dependent on this."

Rawlings-Blake proposes a $264,000 cut to her own office, or about 6 percent from the $4.25 million now budgeted.

The reduction is likely due in part to the recent departures of two high-ranking staffers, chief of staff Sophie Dagenais and chief lobbyist Diane Hutchins. Dagenais earned $140,000 per year; Hutchins earned $110,000.

Rawlings-Blake promoted former Deputy Chief of Staff Kim Washington to the top lobbyist position earlier this year.

O'Doherty declined Tuesday to supply current salary information for Rawlings-Blake's top staffers.

This marks the second year that Rawlings-Blake kicked off the budget process by announcing cuts to the mayor's office. Last year, she cut $576,000 in part by terminating holdovers from the administration of Sheila Dixon.

Miles, the interfaith coalition leader, said he hoped the budget would show that Rawlings-Blake prioritized children and communities over Downtown businesses.

"If there are going to be substantial monies put into downtown, in terms of the [proposed Baltimore Arena] development and west-side development, then the same kind of concern needs to be taken in terms of rec centers for our children, jobs for our youth and our neighborhoods," he said. "If the budget reflects substantial money for Downtown development and doesn't reflect that in our uptown neighborhoods, than we have a problem with that."

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Budget details

$65 million in spending cuts to meet projected deficit

No new taxes, but fees for bulk trash pickup

A 2 percent cost of living increase to current employees

Continued furlough days for city workers

Shortened hours for public libraries and 311 call center

Cuts to after-school programs and animal services

Continued funding for police and fire at current levels

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