Mayor calls for longer firefighter hours, user fee for garbage pickups

In her State of the City address, Rawlings-Blake lays out her financial priorities and reforms.

rawlings-blake state of city

Mayor Rawlings-Blake addresses the City Council during her State of the City address today.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Couched in terms of long-term financial necessity, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake today called for major changes in the way city employees are paid health benefits, pensions and – in the case of firefighters – the number of hours they work.

Backing publicly a plan that Fire Chief James Clack floated privately last year, Rawlings-Blake said city firefighters must change to 52-hour workweeks to “prevent the constant threat of firehouse closures.”

“Baltimore’s firefighters are the best in America, but the current 42-hour shift schedule is outdated and inefficient,” Rawlings-Blake said, noting that fire personnel work an average of 52 hours in a majority of large U.S. cities.

Her proposal was immediately characterized as a de-facto wage cut by Michael Campbell, president of Fire Officers Local 964.

“The city workweek for police and everyone else is 40 hours,” Campbell said after the speech. He added that Baltimore County follows the same 42-hour workweek as the city – and has no plans to lengthen firefighter hours.

Adding 10 hours to the department’s workweek has been a major goal of Chief Clack, whose contract was renewed last July after he closed two fire companies.

Reforming Pensions and Benefits

Saying all city workers must accept changes to “outdated, unsustainable benefits,” the mayor also proposed significant “rebalances” to employee health and retirement plans.

She called on rank-and-file workers to pay into the city’s pension plans, with a 401(k)-style retirement plan to be established for new civilian hires and a “hybrid” defined contribution/defined pension plan for recruits in the fire and police departments.

The mayor said some of the savings from these reforms could be used to increase the base salary of city employees, which lag behind other jurisdictions.

Trash Fee for Residents

The mayor also proposed a “users  fee” for the collection of garage, recycling and other waste from homes and businesses.

The collection – and fee structure – would be handled by a quasi-public “solid waste enterprise” affiliated with the Department of Public Works, according to mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan.

Brennan said the plan would spread the burden of trash collection to apartment dwellers and non-profit organizations that currently don’t pay directly for pickups through property taxes. (Many businesses and non-profits pay private haulers to collect their trash.)

Details of the plan – such as the yearly fees to homeowners – were not available and are still being worked out by administration officials.

Charging for trash collection has become popular in Maryland, with annual users fees ranging from $298 in Anne Arundel County to $369 in Montgomery County.

Rawlings-Blake pledged today to use the collection fee to lower the city’s property tax rate.

The mayor listens to vigorous applause after her speech from the City Council as well as cabinet members in the audience. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The mayor listens to vigorous applause after her speech from the City Council as well as cabinet members in the audience. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Without elaboration, she said she hoped to cut property taxes for homeowners “by nearly 50 cents” over the next 10 years.

That’s a 22% reduction from the current rate of $2.268 per $100 of assessed value.

A trash fee was cited as a way to reduce long-term municipal costs by PFM Group, who were hired as $460,000-a-year financial consultants to the administration, and whose pessimistic 10-year fiscal forecast was released by the mayor last week.

The mayor said that she would be using PFM’s  forecast to guide her in confronting financial challenges facing the city over the next decade.

The forecast predicts that the city would run a cumulative deficit of $750 million by 2022 (based on the current level of services) due to flat property tax revenues and rising employee pension and health costs.

Mayor Cites her Successes

Today’s speech by the mayor to the City Council – a knockoff of the State of the Union address to be delivered to Congress tomorrow by the president – included many laudatory appraisals of her performance in office.

“Over the last three years, we have achieved more results toward meeting the fundamental challenges that caused Baltimore’s decline and impeded our ability to cement a turnaround,” she said, citing reductions in violent crimes, better schools and more neighborhood investment.

“Population loss is slowing to a near halt, and many neighborhoods are experiencing new growth,” she told the Council, pronouncing her “Vacants to Value” housing program a big success.

Regarding her style of administration, the mayor observed, “Since taking office, I’ve always pledged to talk straight and never sugarcoat our problems. Truth is the first step of any real solution. . . Believe me, I do this with complete sincerity and humility. I only want to change Baltimore for the better.”

Topics Avoided

The speech was also notable for the issues it skirted around.

One was the tax breaks given by her administration to waterfront developments and the long-stalled downtown Superblock. The mayor did not describe the tax breaks except to say, “We can better align and target economic development tax incentives to maximize their impact and ensure positive return on city subsidies.”

The mayor also did not address the issue of auditing city agencies – many of which haven’t been reviewed by outside accountants in decades. Last summer, her allies torpedoed a plan that called on yearly audits. The bill that passed the City Council calls for audits of some agencies every fourth year.

The speech touched only briefly on public safety and policing – and made no mention of calls for more sensitive policing in low-income neighborhoods or the spate of cash settlements made by the city to terminate police brutality cases.

Rebuilding city schools – a hot topic in last year’s State of the City speech – was also only briefly mentioned today.

Finally, the mayor sidestepped the question of whether more neighborhood rec centers will be closed this year.

Instead she expressed faith that the city would be able to increase its capital budget in order to rebuild 10 of the city’s 55 rec facilities over the next decade.

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  • ZacharyMurray

    Silly me for thinking that the mayor might use this opportunity to articulate a real vision.

  • Gerald Neily

    So the purpose of the garbage fee is make homeowners pay their own way, in order to help multi-unit condos and apartments which already pay to collect their own trash.

  • scott meek

    which part of my city taxes is not a “user fee”? i will happily (and totally free, i might add) deliver all my garbage to the Mayor’s residence, if you will just send me her address.

  • sheila

    I would love to see her work with the FireFighters for 42 Hours…………Wonder whats going to change foe Her!!!!!!!!!!  Nothing

  • Carol Ott

    Once again the mayor has decided to fund her developer tax breaks and other unnecessary spending on the backs of the fire department and the few middle class taxpaying residents we have left.

    It’s time for churches and other nonprofits to start paying property taxes on the blighted vacants they own, time for our elected officials to realize you can’t redevelop a city without a solid middle class — and yours is fleeing at an alarming rate.

    When will Baltimore voters wake up? 

    • Steven Parke


  • ObsceneJesster

    She doesn’t even know how many hours her firefighters currently work. We actually work 48 hour weeks. 

    • hdchickinfl

      Not to mention that you can’t just up and leave a fire because your shift is over. Not having the luxury of knowing your daily commute to work because the rolling closures mean you can be assigned to a house on the opposite side of the city. Being under the pressure of doing everything you can to get to an incident that requires a longer response time because the closest firehouse was either permanently closed or is closed as part of the rotation. etc, etc, etc… Firefighters, police, teachers – all underpaid and overworked. 

  • InkpeninMD

    Overworked and under-paid firefighters and a new corruption machine to collect the trash. My confidence in the city drops every time the Mayor floats another plan. Stick a fork in it, the city is done.

  • John

    So the scheme is to lower the property tax a couple hundred bucks and then pay for it by charging each homeowner a couple hundred bucks for trash pick-up. Did I get that right?

  • Matthew

    She doesn’t get it…if you reduce one tax and pay for it by raising an involuntary fee, you are not lowering taxes…We need the cost of government per tax payer to be less, not simply paying for the same amount and calling it something other than a tax…

    We need to reduce the cost of city government and we can start by reducing the number of people who are a financial burden to this city. The counties actively encouraged their poor residents to come to the city in the 80’s and 90’s and I think it’s time for some payback. No we are not helping drug addicts who can’t proved the lived here their entire lives. No, we will not pay for everyone who applies for housing vouchers or food stamps who lives in this city. We need to move the poor out to Anne Arundel and Baltimore County’s so we can have a fairer distribution of people on government programs (I wouldn’t feel bad about this in the least because they dumped their poor in the city by under funding their programs in the 80’s and 90’s which is partially the reason they have less than a 10% poverty rate and Baltimore is 25%) But until she fixes our city’s revenue problems and sticks us all with a trash bill, I think we should all just dump our trash in her front yard where her trash bill will pay to haul it out of there.

  • p johnson

    If the mayor (and city council) were true leaders they would be cutting their salary/budgets/car allowances FIRST. 

  • Flint Arthur


    In addition to being cruel to the poor, your advocating city government do something outside of it’s power (reduce Federal programs). Poor people didn’t move to Baltimore.  It’s poor people who stayed when the middle class moved out to the burbs because of desegregation, generous governmental housing assistance, government funded highways and lower property tax rates..

    • Matthew

      Flint, my mother was recommended by the department of social services in the 90’s in Baltimore county to move to Baltimore if she would like to receive housing assistance because Baltimore City had a 1 year waiting list vs. 6 years in Baltimore County. Furthermore, I know someone who was a PO in Baltimore County that would recommend anyone who could use a City address to do so for drug treatment because Baltimore City has better programs than the county for addicts. This is how the county has moved their bottom-of-the-barrel poor to this once great city. The counties have exploited Baltimore’s social welfare program, which has lead to the city having a 22% poverty rate.

    • Gerald Neily

      Flint Arthur, it seems you are blaming Federal programs for Baltimore’s problems. Fair enough. You’re rightly looking at the big picture, not tinkering around at the margins as is the political custom. A starting point would be for Baltimore to take command of its own destiny. Baltimore is the largest city in the richest state in the world’s richest country. Reliance on the same old Federal programs is waiting for Santa Claus to launder our money.

      Matthew, you mention the “waiting list”. The whole idea of waiting lists as some kind of solution is repugnant. It has taken 14 years to build a supermarket in Howard Park with no end in sight. Waiting is failing.

  • bmorepanic

    There are plenty of entities who should pay a trash fee on top of their taxes – multi-unit buildings that were residential conversions, some residential to business conversions, or religious and non-profit property not otherwise taxed that are serviced by the city.  Hauling away the trash for 5 apartments or offices in a building is not equal to the trash generated from a single family occupancy house.

    The fact is that landlords with individual small properties that were house-to-apartment conversions or those with house-to-office conversions get free trash removal.  Investors who specialize in these types of properties end up with extra service for which they are not paying extra taxes.   Someone should co-ordinate the trash pickup routes with building owners and building use and find out the extent of trash pickups that are not residential in nature.

    Cynic that I am, I have to wonder what is her actual agenda.   Is the trash fee a red herring to draw all of the argument away from the pension issues?  Is the city going to be required to develop other ways of dealing with trash to meet federal pollution requirements?  If the fee is separated from the tax, can it then be increased at will?  It certainly wouldn’t be vulnerable to changes in property valuations any longer, but is it worth an entire other billing/collection process and the people to service it?

  • BmoreFree

    I don’t agree with everything in the speech, but I do applaud her for at least trying to take on some political sacred cows. City leaders kicked the can down the road for decades and now it is time to pay up for their short term fixes.

    The rest of the state has used Baltimore as a punching bag for too long, by getting the city’s fiscal house in order (and knowing where the money is going and if it is being used effectively) will allow city leaders to go to Annapolis with the hard truths of decades of state disinvestment and malinvestment.

  • Katie Kelley

    Why are firefighters always the first to get screwed? This administration has had it out for the BCFD since day one. It’s appalling. 

  • asteroid_B612

    The trash fee is also a way to establish a minimum that property owners pay for city services. A $300 per year fee for residences is more than thousands of property owners pay in property taxes every year (the State assesses vacant buildings so they only pay $70 per year in property taxes.)

    The city should also pass a law requiring a permanent property tax reduction equal to the amount of any property tax benefit given to well-heeled developers. That would put a stop to the corporate welfare shenanigans the politicians are addicted to.

  • Joe Six-Pac

    Most county’s in Maryland already do the separate trash collection fee and it makes sense. This way entities which are exempt from tax collections still have to pay for the services they use.

    Also, a lot of people appear to think this fee is optional and people will simply not pay and let their trash pile up… That is not the case, in every Maryland county these fees are attached to your tax bill and it’s effectively a lien against your property. If you don’t pay it you will lose the property, so it’s not exactly a “choice”. This strategy also gives these counties a way to hide the real cost of living in the suburbs and gives them an unfair advantage when people are making the decision on where to live.

    I have been very skeptical of SRB since she took office, but after reading through the transcript of her speech I find myself agreeing more than disagreeing with her proposed changes. While they may not be the most popular moves, if you do some research into similar metropolitan areas that went through years of decline (i.e. Boston, Philly, San Fran), this is right on par with how they recovered. Shed city government, lower real estate taxes, and get city owned properties into the free market – it’s a recipe for growth.

  • Flint Arthur

    Gerald,I wasn’t advocating any federal program, just responding to Matthew in regards to SNAP (foodstamps) and HUD. I haven’t advanced an argument in this discussion about what Baltimore should do.  Generally, I would be in favor of a change in Baltimore City’s taxes to make them less regressive.  That is, stop the big tax breaks for big business (Constellation Energy, UnderArmour, Hotels, apartment buildings, parking garages, etc…).  Something like DC’s tax rates that have differential tax rates for use of property residential, small business, big business, vacant and blight.  I’m not opposed to a user fee for garbage collection give the current tax situation, but I’m skeptical of the cost of administration and am concerned about how the tax burden will fall and need to see more specifics about the proposal. I do think that making some comparisons with taxes and spending in the county is appropriate.  While it’s probably a non-starter, that Baltimore city has double the police force per capita seems problematic.  I’m not convinced by the argument that more police means less homicide and less violent crime.   I do know that Baltimore City is spending a lot less on schooling than Baltimore County.   When people are making decisions on residency between the county and the city, property taxes, school and crime rank towards the top of concerns.  This administration engages in a number of bad economic developments, like the Grand Prix. 

  • Bill C Beekeeper

    Seems all the Mayor wants to accomplish  a promise to reduce property taxes while making us pay for trash pick-up which we already pay for through our property taxes. This has been called a shell game for centuries. Meanwhile, they give themselves raises every year, get stipends for cars and staff, give their corporate constituents tax breaks for new Inner Harbor developments, fund a failing car race, and plain LIE to our faces about reducing our city costs….WOW!!! I dont know about anyone else but this is really a slap in the face to everyone who lives and works in Baltimore. This city has been mismanaged for decades. It shows everywhere you go within the city. Tons of abandoned neighborhoods with burned out row homes, crack houses, and crime everywhere. I think it is time for the elected Baltimore officials to stand up and recognize that they have allowed this city to decay to this point. I am shocked beyond belief that the Mayor has the nerve to pay her favorite firm hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat us over the head to now demand us to pay more for services we already pay for….INCOMPETENCE!!! 

  • Matthew

    If trash removal is a user fee and not a tax, can I opt out and haul my own garbage to the dump and save myself from paying the fee, if it is would think. Can I choose to pay a non-union, less expensive garbage removal outfit to pick up my trash instead of the DPW?…how about a guy with a truck? If I don’t have those choices, it’s a tax not a fee.

    She has not said if tenants would be forced to pay this trash removal user fee. If it is a user fee, tenants in this city would be the user of the service and should have to pay this directly and would not be included in their landlord’s property tax bill.

    To argue for a fee by stating other counties have a similar fee does not hold water because the residents of Baltimore are already paying the highest income, property, and personal property taxes in the entire state. Even with her proposed reduction in property taxes, the property tax rate will still be among the highest. Just because we don’t have a fee doesn’t mean that the middle and upper class in this city does not pay more as a percentage of their income to the city than those in other counties.

    • Joe Six-Pac

      Actually… we don’t. The Maryland jurisdiction which pays the most of their income to their county is Colmar
      Manor, in Prince George’s County, which pays $0.844 / $100 assessed to the county, an ADDITIONAL $1.49/$100 assessed to the municipality AND a trash pickup fee. Since Baltimore City and PG County share the same income tax rate, your statement is completely incorrect.

      It makes a good headline that Baltimore city has the highest taxes, but when you take municipality taxes into account there are a number of jurisdictions that are almost as bad, and won’t pick up your trash for free. Take relatively “low tax” Allegany County for example. At $0.981/ $100 assessed it appears a good deal, but after the municipality tax in Cumberland you’re paying $1.8025, or about 5 cents MORE than the Mayor is proposing.

      Other counties such as Howard require huge HOA fees to live in any of the modern developments. Coupled with the tax collection fee this adds ~$1000 a year to the tax bill and raises the ACTUAL rate from the relatively modest $1.014/$100 assessed by close to 50% on a $250K home.

      I’m not afraid to admit that I am middle/upper-middle class, work in the county and I choose to live in the city. This was after viewing many houses in the county and crunching the numbers and realizing I am saving so much money on my taxes and user fees due to the undervaluation of housing stock (my house is 3000+sq feet in a safe, desirable area and assessed like a condo in Howard in County) that I can afford to send my kids to reasonable private schools should I not be able to get them into a free charter and still save money as opposed to buying a similarly sized home in the county due to savings from my mortgage, taxes and user fees.

      I encourage everyone looking at buying a house to do a fair assessment of the ENTIRE cost of where you choose to live. You may find that the city is a lot more affordable and enticing than the headlines lead you to believe.

      • BmoreFree

         Joe you are 100% right. My wife and I did the same calculation and came to a similar conclusion. I think the mayor’s office should do more to show the effective tax burden compared across several other municipalities in the state and publish those results. You would see that the total tab is not terribly different. Baltimore might come out a bit higher but there are city amenities we enjoy that make up for the difference.

      • Matthew

        Joe, it sounds like a good deal until you take into account depressed property values, the cost of sending a child to a proper private school, and what being anywhere near the highest rates for property taxes (in a high tax state) does for depressing  potential investment (especially without special tax breaks). The public schools in Howard County are very good but in Baltimore City schools most schools fall under the national median for test scores for math, reading and science. This means you need to consider the cost of a private school education, on top of your already high taxes. What does this mean for a family making 40-80K per year in regards to disposable income?

        • Joe Six-Pac

          You bring up Howard County schools and most of my coworkers fell into the same trap as you with their logic on why to buy there. First off, families making 40-80K a year are already priced out of the best schools in the region so they’re looking at schools in lower-priced county where the education is actually worse than the city in many cases. Have you checked’s ratings of Arbutus and Dundalk lately?

          But, focusing on the ever-present comparison of Howard County to Baltimore, let me expand a little. A comparable house to mine in Columbia is ~$500K due to the demand the schools generate and the high number of highly educated software and government workers vying for the same real estate and is assessed for about that rate. Instead, you can buy a similar house in Baltimore for ~$300K and it’s assessed by the state at ~80-90% of that rate. Right there you’re already saving on the mortgage, and your taxes are approximately equivalent.

          Now here come the real savings. In Columbia you pay a the Columbia Association fee(~$500 a year), a trash collection fee($225), a neighborhood fee (example: Owen Brown neighborhood pays nearly $400 a year) and in some neighborhoods they even have associations for the sub-communities.

          In the end via savings of approximately $200K less in mortgage payments over $1000/month as well as the $1000/year in association fees, you actually end up saving in excess of $13,000 a year. Comparatively the city is a steal.

          As for schooling, if you don’t get into the charter system and have two kids you have a minimum of $6,500 a year per child towards schooling, which is substantially more than the amount required for Catholic grade school. Or if you’re not into parochial school you can go to a number of very high quality non-denominational schools for that price (and more are opening all the time such as New Century in Fells) and get an education tailored to your child’s needs because you’re handing them a check every year.

          I understand that city living is not for everyone, and I get it some people feel more comfortable in their suburban environments and I accept that. What I don’t accept is the blanket statements being said about what a “bad deal” life in the city is, when it’s very much the contrary.

          • Gerald Neily

            Great discussion. Sixpac certainly makes a valid point that the economics of city living can be made to work. After all, Baltimore has more low income folks than anywhere else and that’s why they live here. The big city problem is that the low property values deter new investment (e.g. putting $300k into a house that’s worth only $100k), which in turn is why values are low in the first place.

  • Arabella_Woodhope

      I’m concerned the trash fee will only be paid by those honest enough to pay it…and the rest of the city will be dumping their trash elsewhere. I’m incredulous the City will be able to enforce such a fee.

  • MC2012

    Joe Six Pack must not have kids and is in for a shock when he finds his tuition budget off by 40% for parochial schools, and 70% for private.  Better hope for that charter lottery.

  • MC2012

    The Mayor deserves great credit for facing the un-glamorous reality, I thought it was the best thing we’ve heard from City Hall in years.
    It pains me as a life-long resident to have grown pessimistic about the outlook for Baltimore City.  Despite trends that should work in our favor, City government has become an anchor preventing us from making progress.  The way the City delivers services is so firmly rooted in the past, and guarded by narrow special interests, that it is out of alignment with the citizens and those most in need- healthcare, pensions and property taxes being the most unsustainable examples.
    Kudos to the Mayor for the courage to address reality.  Now, if only we could develop a 3 year plan, not just a 10 year vision…

  • Dan Taylor

    I, for one, am a fan of the trash fee with a simple caveat: In cities throughout the country we see city-issued trash receptacles (many of which allow for automated garbage truck pickup).

    I will gladly pay a fee as long as the city mandates trash can use at all residences, and provides trash cans (as part of the fee) for this purpose as a means of enforcement. The degree to which bags of garbage are thrown into the alley are ridiculous. Just give everyone a trash can and make them use it. No opt out, no option.

    If I recall SRB floated a plan like this a few years ago, but it was shot down by protests and challenges regarding alley width in historic neighborhoods. Even so, I believe the concept should be revisited and will happily pay as a means to reduce the messes and change the behavior of others.

  • Gerald Neily

    Dan, the trash can issue has nothing to do with this. Rowhouses with front pick-up require hauling stinky trash cans through the house. Sometimes the trash men themselves take the bags out of the cans before the truck arrives. Trash cans also blow around all over the place. Back to the subject: If trash became a separate fee, it would no longer be tax deductible, right?

  • 13thClockStriker

    First of all, Madam Mayor, if you want to save money…start with the small things first, and work your way up. Be a stand up Mayor and drive your own car to work , and use the city vehicle for community appointments. Show the city employees that you care as much to help the city budget, and that will bring much more respect to everybody doing there part. Take away take home cars totally, and just bear down on city vehicles. If some one needs to make an emergency incident run to the city, pay them a fuel fee for vehicle use, and assign them a light bar, that is less expensive. Go through each department, and scrap nonsense, and items and jobs that can be done away with. As for trash assign the huge 55 gallon cans to every residence with a cost, and pick up trash from the front instead of squeezing through alleys. Do you know how much faster trash can be collected with the huge cans. It would make people more responsible for trash on the front, and much less room for trash spawning through the alleys. Break down and make all accountable, and please stop doing studies and paying thousands of dollars, that the city says that it does not have. It would be better to assemble a team within the city to do a study if needed without the extra cost. Trail where the money is going, and have agencies more accountable. Tax breaks for developers must stop, are there tax breaks for residents??????? At this point everybody has to throw in the towel, be on the level, and on the square. This is a city that always beat up on the backbone of the city, the Fireman, & the Policeman. I strongly feel and many may agree, and disagree…a 52 hour work week is a bit to much when they are not paid overtime as other City employees and private employees. Even a minimum wage job pays overtime after 40 hours, as well as a well paid government job. You are always barking after there retirements, well many do not know that they do, and will not collect social security in there later years, so what it is is what it is. It is so sad that you would like to reduce from the backbone of the city, and each one of them do a fine job everyday. Where would the city be today without them, you have got the best, pay and keep the best. 

  • 13thClockStriker

    Want to save money Baltimore…..stop Fire vehicles from going to another station for so called Battalion training when there are the same books in there respective quarters. The training books have the same words in them, same pages. Why do you need to drive across town to listen to someone read to you, a total waste of city fuel and time. You get to the station, and get a call back in your district, a fire or medical assist, and have to drive to the incident and back to the training station again. Madam Mayor you can save a lot of money there. If it is a new tool that a unit has, that is different…ok lets do training. Think how much diesel fuel is used daily, driving reports, and going to listen to someone read. You can have 5-7 units going to another station to have someone read to them 90% of the time. Companies can read in there own quarters, and it is much cheaper for the Chief to come around and pick up reports then it is for Huge diesel apparatus to to bring a sheet of paper. Even better still, why not have electronic reports that can be emailed, or fax machines. Reports can be emailed, and signed and forwarded, a lot can be done in this area to save money. That is a lot of city waste there, and it not the Fireman’s fault, it is the system in place that has allowed it to go on for so long.

  • William Hudson

    56 hours work week, this isnt America in the age of the “sweat shops”, this is 2013.  Next she will want to lower the legal working age to 8, and pay them in candy

  • Steven Parke

    I can’t wait to see the illegal dumping in parks and abandoned parts of the city. Not a real smart idea. Cutting redundant government jobs and underperforming public servants would be a start. We all know that would be a large group of people in this city.

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