Rawlings-Blake stomps down budget amendments

THE CITY COUNCIL and advocates for youth programs and the fire department took an emotional roller coaster ride last week, as an insurrection led by Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young succeeded in cutting more than $6 million from the mayor’s proposed budget on Monday, intended to restore funding to those programs, only to put it all back Friday afternoon after several votes for the cuts defected.

“I would submit to you that this is not the end of the fight today,” said Pastor Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, who has helped lead the fight to cut city agencies and direct the money to youth jobs and recreation centers.

Indeed, the fight is perpetual. On Monday, as a shifting array of council members were about to vote on more than 30 amendments to eliminate vacant positions, reduce salaries for a few pending city hires, and make other line-by-line adjustments to the 220-page Ordinance of Estimates, Councilman Robert Curran (3rd District) reminded the council what happened in 1997, when the council cut the budget in order to restore money to rec centers. Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke used the savings to cut property taxes instead.

“I need reassurance that the cuts will go to the things we want,” Curran said, “not to reduce property taxes.” He never got that assurance, and Curran voted against the amendments on Monday and again on Friday.

The administration said the cuts were irresponsible and, anyway, could only be turned into tax cuts or put in the reserve fund. But the exercise was not completely futile. Several council members were able to horse-trade for better city services. (Jim Kraft of the 1st District, received a promise of better building and housing code enforcement, for example.) And the whole charade shed some light on the budget, which might not be as tight as the mayor would have everyone believe.

Revenue from speed and red light cameras, for example, seem to be habitually underestimated. Then, too, consider one amendment from Kraft seeking to cut a $311,000 increase in the facilities management budget. “The budget director said it was unallocated,” Kraft said.

These kinds of things could perhaps be best seen if city departments were audited more than once a decade. A bill to allow citizens to vote to amend the city charter so that audits are on a schedule was postponed until this week. Its sponsor, Councilman Robert Stokes (12th District), was unreachable and said to be out of town on a family emergency.

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