Council discards cuts, approves mayor's budget plan

The Baltimore City Council reversed course Thursday, rejecting millions of dollars in budget cuts it had endorsed earlier in the week, and passing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's original $2.3 billion spending plan.

The abrupt shift derailed $6 million in cuts that had been proposed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young in an attempt to prevent the closure of recreation centers and fire companies. Nine council members voted for the mayor's budget, rejecting his proposed amendments.

Rawlings-Blake's office praised the council for passing her budget, which closes a $48 million shortfall and includes, for the first time in several years, a small property tax cut for homeowners.

"The budget plan was built around our vision for growing Baltimore's population by 10,000 families in the next 10 years," the mayor said in a statement. "Additionally, the budget supports significant funding for programs and services that impact Baltimore's youth."

But Young said after the meeting, "A vote against the amended budget is a vote against our kids." The mayor's staffers, he said, "think it was a loss for me. It wasn't. It was a loss for the people of Baltimore."

Three council members who had supported many of Young's amendments earlier in the week — James B. Kraft, Nick Mosby and William "Pete" Welch — voted against the amended budget and for the mayor's plan.

Councilman Carl Stokes, who had previously voted for the amendments, did not attend the meeting; an aide said he was dealing with a family emergency. Five council members — Warren Branch, Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry, Helen Holton and Young — voted for the amended budget.

Council members, many of whom were dressed in seersucker, nervously joked before the meeting about the intense heat outside — and in the council chambers.

Before casting his vote, Kraft explained that he realized there was no point in voting for the amendments because the mayor would not agree to boost funding in the areas that the council had identified.

"I want to thank the council president for his leadership," Kraft said. Young, sitting beside him, frowned and shook his head before walking out of the room.

Young said later that the mayor had "bought" the support of council members by offering services for their districts. Kraft, he said, would receive a ranger for Patterson Park and a housing inspector, while Mosby had been promised a new rec center.

"I'm sure the others got something, too," Young said.

Kraft said that the administration previously had pledged to allocate such services to his district, but acknowledged that the topic had come up during discussions over the budget. When he agreed to vote for the mayor's plan, it was already clear that Young's amended budget would be defeated, he said.

"I'd rather walk away with a victory for my district, than with a loss not only for my district but for the entire city," he said.

Mosby said he has continually asked for a new rec center in his district, but it did not come up in discussions with the mayor about his vote. "It has nothing to do with this budget or whether I say yes or no," he said.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake denied that the mayor offered perks to Kraft and Mosby in exchange for their votes.

"Councilmen Mosby and Kraft are independent voices on the City Council who make up their own minds about what's best for Baltimore," Ryan O'Doherty said in an email.

On Monday, council members had endorsed a slew of measures designed to trim money from several agencies and services, including executive protective of elected officials, the inspector general's office and police administration.

The council has held weeks of marathon hearings on the budget, as is customary, although members have little power to shape spending. Under the city charter, the council can only cut money from the spending plan; it cannot allocate funds for particular services.

The council rarely alters the mayor's spending plan. Three years ago, the council, guided by Rawlings-Blake, then the council president, led a similar insurrection, which also fizzled out.

The mayor's operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July increases spending by 1 percent, while plugging the shortfall.

Three city fire companies are slated to be closed to save costs. The department has operated under a system of rolling closures for several years. The adminstration and Fire Chief James S. Clack say that the company closures will not lead to any firehouses' being closed, and will not expose firefighters and residents to risks.

The spending plan also calls for four rec centers — and possibly 10 others — to close in mid-August. The closures, which have been vigorously opposed by youth advocates, are part of Rawlings-Blake's plan to create a smaller, higher-quality network of rec centers.

The mayor plans to build, renovate and improve programs at 30 centers, while turning 25 others to the school system or private partners. If operators do not come forward for some of the centers, they could close.

Costs for health plans for city employees will rise significantly in January, although workers who switch to managed-care plans will pay about the same amount they do now. Administration officials say the change, which was recommended by a task force of fiscal experts convened by the mayor, will bring health benefits more into line with those offered by surrounding localities. Union leaders and some council members have questioned the financial burden on workers.

The administration says the change will save the city nearly $10 million for the coming budget year and twice as much in future years.

Young's budget proposal, which he said was shaped by the recommendations of residents, would have increased funding for youth summer jobs and after-school programs, as well as for rec centers and the fire department.

In addition to a number of agency cuts, he recommended that the city estimate speed camera revenue at the same level as in the current year. Finance officials say they expect to collect $5 million less next year as residents grow used to the cameras.

Administration officials vigorously opposed Young's proposed cuts, saying they would result in nearly two dozen layoffs and hinder key services. Moreover, they said, the charter states that any savings from the council's cuts would be considered "surplus" and must be used to lower property taxes or be diverted to a reserve fund.

Young said the mayor has a great deal of latitude in spending and could increase funding for these initiatives if she wanted to. The mayor has consented to increase funding for some after-school programs and the "Experience Corps," which hires retirees to work in classrooms.

Councilman Bill Henry, one of five members to vote for the amended budget, said he did not want to give "people the wrong impression that this could not be done.

"What doesn't work is if the mayor refuses to come to the table and reallocate the money to the purposes people have asked for," Henry said, eliciting cheers from youth advocates who had attended the meeting.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad