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Quick and Dirty

Breaking the Bank

By Stephen Janis | Posted 1/25/2006

City Councilman Kenneth Harris recently began an investigation of lax city-agency budgeting, in line with a resolution he sponsored in the council to keep closer tabs on city spending. This past week, the 4th District Democrat’s efforts revealed that the Baltimore Police Department has already spent $16 million in overtime pay for the current fiscal year—that’s $9 million more than the amount the BPD budgeted for overtime.

Harris says the overspending is a perfect example of why he thinks the city’s budgeting process is flawed. When the city makes its budget, he says, agency heads already know that the money they’re allotted won’t be enough to meet the needs of their various agencies. For example, he says, this year’s police overtime budget was “woefully inadequate,” citing documents provided to him by Edward Ambrose, chief of the BPD’s administrative division. In fact, Harris says, overtime spending for fiscal year 2006 (which started July 1, 2005, and ends June 30) is already ahead of what was spent in fiscal year 2005.

“I think the administrations know the numbers are wrong beforehand,” he says. “We need to be realistic from the start.”

Harris says that Ambrose places some of the blame for the overspending on 151 unfilled patrol vacancies. To make up for those unfilled spots, the department has had to spend on overtime; patrol costs swelled from $6 million in 2005 to $11.8 million in 2006.

BPD spokesman Matt Jablow, however, says
the overspending is a response to the changing patterns of crime in the city, not underbudgeting
or understaffing.

“We had a bunch of command initiatives this summer in response to a crime spike,” he says. “That’s why overtime is up.”

The spending has had a benefit for the city already, Jablow says, as crime “is down in almost every category” this year.

But Harris says something needs to be done to keep spending in line with budgeting.

“I support the police department, but when they spent $18 million on overtime for 2005, why budget $7 million for this year?” he wonders. “Every year we go through the same process. I think we need to be more accurate in the first place. If you handled your household budget the way the city does, you’d be in big trouble.”

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