City officials released the financial plan to run the city for the 2013 Fiscal Year and close the deficit of $46 million looming over the city last week. The Baltimore Department of Finance went before the Board of Estimates to introduce the preliminary 2013 FY Budget that will conclude three years of furloughs for city employees and begin the gradual 20-cent decrease in city property tax for homeowners. “When you ask families what they need in order to stay in Baltimore, it is safe neighborhoods, good schools, job opportunities, and lower property taxes.
This budget focuses on the fundamentals that will help get Baltimore growing again,” Mayor Rawlings-Blake said in her statement about her plan. According to the preliminary budget, posted in full on the Baltimore City official website, the plan will increase safety by fully funding services provided by the Baltimore City EMS.
Also, 550 new cameras from the Crime Camera Management program will be introduced across the city. Call centers for both 311 and 911 will be consolidated and those in need of temporary shelter will see 150 new beds become available.
While the budget does increase funding for many important programs, community leaders and activists are finding themselves still locked in a fight for city recreation centers. The total budget for the city comes in at a total of $2.2 billion, with $10.9 million allocated to maintain the city’s recreation and community centers. Currently there are 55 centers that are open to serve youth. The proposed financial plan calls for 14 of the centers to become “expanded, model Community Centers” that will offer initiatives for citizens of all ages, not just youth. Sixteen of the current 55 will operate as recreation centers, and like the community centers, will continue to be under city management. As many as five of the centers could be taken over by the Baltimore City Public School system. Seven of the buildings will be converted into facilities for after school programming, leaving six more to be taken over by private companies. Eight recreation centers could be closed if third parties don’t step in with funding before July 1. City Council President Bernard C. Jack Young, along with many other council members have spoken against the privatization of the centers as well as the proposed closures that will occur as a means of shrinking the city deficit.
"It's not just about cutting programs, but it’s about utilizing the capital and the programs and services you have more efficiently where it will directly impact the savings associated with those programs," said Councilman Nick Mosby of the 7th District.
"I think that we should allow time to play out and see if it's really effective as opposed to continue going down this path of privatization. We haven't shown success from the first set that we've privatized.”
Last December concluded the initial wave of centers to become “charter centers,” operated by third party non-profit companies. The Brooklyn O’Malley, Collington Square, Easterwood, and Lillian Jones recreation centers were all handed over to private companies that placed bids on the facilities. A second round of contracts is currently under negotiation. “The youth are our primary interest,” said Betty Bland-Thomas, director of Sharp Kids, an after school program and member of the in the Sharp-Ledenhall Community in South Baltimore. Banding together parents, church members, and community leaders, Bland-Thomas enlisted the help of her community to fund positive activities in the neighborhood. “We’re trying to enrich our own space so our kids can be more confident as they go out. One of the things that we tend to forget is that communities have a lot of strength. We may not be exercising our strength and our opportunity to help where the city is not able to do.”
Bland-Thomas’ program operates in large part from sponsorship from church groups and community residents but within the next year will seek grants that are available to expand. Her after school initiative has grown so quickly that what began last year quickly outgrown her home, where she began the program. Though she has faced challenges in finding a larger space, Bland- Thomas understands the importance of continuously striving for programming and services that allow youth to positively connect with each other and valuable mentors. “Be engaged, get to know young people by being part of a group that is helping supply these kinds of activities, ” said Bland-Thomas, to those who feel they have little impact on the future. Aside from cutting funding to recreation centers, fire houses that in the past have been on a rotating closure schedule will now have three companies permanently shut down. The City Council will hold a “Taxpayer’s Nights, ” on April 11 at 6pm. Taxpayer Nights are designed to allow citizens their last say on the budget before it goes for a vote in June and becomes adopted, with necessary amendments, in July.