Economist on Baltimore City's new administrator: 'The City's budget is in crisis'
Originally published in FOX45 News
BALTIMORE (WBFF) – On the heels of taking the helm of Baltimore City, newly sworn-in Mayor Brandon Scott set his sights on reshaping and organizing the structure inside City Hall with the announcement of his pick for the city administrator role but his hire brings an air of mystery surrounding the source of funding.
When voters approved the City’s charter amendment to create the administrator position, Scott’s office said the position would not expand city’s government’s budget. Instead, they said the allocations of funds would come from the mayor’s budget, utilizing existing funds.
During the Dec. 2 Board of Estimates meeting, the money was approved for the position, setting a salary of $290,000 for the city administrator position. The documents from the Board of Estimates show a reclassification of a vacant chief of staff position creates the city administrator role. An additional $80,000 will be used from the mayor’s general funds to bring the new position up to the $290,000 salary.
“There’s no free lunch, there’s no loose change in the budget,” Steve Walters said, chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.
Walters noted that the city is fresh off a budget deficit in the wake of a slumping tax revenue year amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped much of the state’s economy as well. The current budget year is facing another deficit, Walters said.
“The city budget is in crisis,” he said bluntly. “We’re already scraping the barrel so to speak in terms of finding every spare resource and there just aren’t any. So, let’s just be realistic about that.”
When Scott announced he tapped Christopher Shorter to take on the inaugural role of Baltimore City Administrator, which was done on the eve of his inauguration, Scott also announced he had hired Michael Huber to serve as his chief of staff. Scott’s office did not respond to questions where the vacant chief of staff position is located within city government that was reclassified to make room for the city administrator job on the payroll.
“And then there’s going to be staff, where are those dollars coming from? We ought to know because something else is going to get smaller so this line item can get bigger,” Walters said. “Tell us what a chief of staff would have done that’s now not going to get done. Tell us what other lines are not going to get done.”
Where the additional $80,000 will come from beyond the mayor’s general fund is unclear, but before Shorter officially takes over as the first city administrator, he must be approved by the City Council. His role will be to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city and a position David Williams, president of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, said should be one that’s free from politics.
“This has to be a person that has a mission – a mission to make things run smoother in Baltimore and a mission to save taxpayer money,” Williams said.
With a salary of $290,000 Shorter is poised to be the highest paid public official in Baltimore City. Williams said setting that salary creates “no incentive for this guy to be successful.”
“When you’re paying the highest salary of any public official in Baltimore, there are very high expectations,” Williams added. “The people in Baltimore want to see a plan before they pay somebody almost $300,000.”
In addition to oversight of the city, the city administrator is tasked with rooting out fraud, waste and abuse within city government. Such task, according to Walters, will be a tall order for Shorter when he assumes the position.
“Uncovering waste, fraud and abuse is not an easy lift and then wrestling the money away from the abusers isn’t going to be easy,” Walters said. “We wave our hands about this all the time but then when push comes to shove, it’s a lot harder to find budget dollars that don’t’ have meaningful purpose.”
It’s unclear when the issue of approving Shorter for the role will come before the new City Council.