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Mayor’s Budget Focuses On Schedule Changes For Firefighters, Taxes & Pay Increases

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WJZ general assignment reporter Mike Hellgren came to Maryland's News...
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BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Big cuts to the fire department, but a raise for city workers and a decrease in property taxes.

Those are just some of the highlights of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s new budget.

Mike Hellgren breaks it all down.

Under the mayor’s proposal, firefighters would work one 24-hour shift and then have 48 hours off.  The current schedule is four days, with 2 10-hour day shifts and 2 14-night shifts. The mayor also wants to eliminate 300 firefighter positions. They would come when they retire or simply leave the job.

“The city is cut bare bones, we’re barely hanging on with what we have,” said Rick Hoffman, International Association of Firefighters Union. “I absolutely applaud Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s work on many parts of the fiscal 2014 budget, though the fire suppression schedule is certainly not one of them.”

“As a union leader I cannot support a plan that eliminates jobs. An overwhelming amount of our membership—nearly 90%—voted to turn down the city’s best offer and now we will either continue talks with the city or proceed with the arbitration process. At this point, the issues we face are not just dollar and cents. We are also dealing with a paradigm shift in the operation of the Baltimore City Fire Department, which includes fire suppression and EMS.”

On the police front, the mayor proposes cutting one of four police helicopters, while aggressively recruiting new officers and funding the full network of Citiwatch cameras.

“I understand that in order to have a growing city, we also have to a safer city,” the mayor said.

The mayor contends she closed a $30 million budget gap without major cuts to services, following recommendations from a long-term plan the city paid consultants half a million dollars for.

“Implementing the 10-year plan starting with this year’s budget will require tough tradeoffs from all of us,” said Rawlings-Blake.

The budget provides more money for aging infrastructure, more cash for school construction and renovations, a 2 percent pay raise for employees and a reduction in property taxes.

Property taxes are down almost 5 percent over the past two fiscal years, but they’re still the highest in the state.

“I’ve been here all my life and I just finished paying for my property, but the property taxes are way, way too high,” said Audrey Adams.

A new taxi cab tax would be 25 cents per ride. Rawlings-Blake is also proposing a new tax on billboards, and she wants to maintain the city’s 20 percent parking tax, which was slated to drop to 19 percent in fiscal 2014. The tax proposals would require City Council approval.

The city estimates it will lose more than $10 million from federal budget cuts, but that’s not figured into this budget.

“There is no wiggle room. That’s the sad fact. If we receive cuts in our federal grants, services will be lost,” said Andrew Kleine, city budget director.

For the first time, the city wants to require civilian employees to contribute to their pension plans. Rawlings-Blake also wants to establish a 401(k)-style retirement plan for new hires, among other reforms to the pension system. If approved by the City Council, the changes would allow the city to raise employee salaries while still balancing the budget.

Employee health care reforms include cost sharing and more use of generic prescriptions.  They save $40 million a year, according to the mayor’s office.

Related Link: More Information On The Budget And Budgeting Process

Like many aging, post-industrial cities, Baltimore’s tax base has been eroding for decades. The city’s population peaked at 950,000 in 1950 and now stands at 619,000. The median income is $40,000, and 22 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, according to Census data. Baltimore also has 16,000 vacant structures.

“They try all  the piecemeal measures, but this is a much more complex problem than all these bandaid approaches,” said Nancy Ancel, Baltimore.

The proposal funds eight recreation centers.  Pools will be funded from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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