The Baltimore City Council unanimously passed Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4 billion budget Thursday after actions of lawmakers clashed on the council floor, ending a contentious budget season that featured 85 hours of hearings and sharp criticisms of Scott’s funding priorities and cabinet leaders.
The council’s progressive wing spearheaded a $500,000 cut from the sheriff’s office, which passed by one vote. The funds will come out of the office’s surplus. Council President Nick Mosby decried the measure, as well as a $196,000 cut to an arts office, saying they are politically motivated and will fail to produce any meaningful progress.
“We had a tremendous opportunity to create bigger changes,” he said. “I see this as performative and great for headlines but I don’t think it moves the needle.”
Ramos introduced the cut following a heated Tuesday budget hearing in which members criticized Sheriff John Anderson’s handling of evictions. She reiterated concerns that the office posts eviction notices in the common areas of apartment buildings, rather than a tenant’s unit door, which may cause renters to miss court dates. Ramos also said the office performs evictions on properties that are not properly licensed as rentals and does not provide court date information to renters when they call for case information.
“This cut sends a message that we expect to see improvements in these three areas over this fiscal year,” she said.
The council has limited authority over the mayor’s budget proposal: they can cut funds but cannot reallocate it. Ramos is lobbying the Scott administration to put the $500,000 toward a program that would give income-eligible renters access to free legal representation in eviction courts.
Scott spokesman James Bentley said the administration has been discussing the money with Ramos but that no specific commitments have been made. The conversations are ongoing, he said.
Sheriff Anderson has been in office since 1989, when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him to fill a vacancy. The state’s longest-serving sheriff is seeking a ninth term, facing Sam Cogen, a former top deputy, in the Democratic primary. A spokesperson for the sheriff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Detrese Dowridge of Baltimore Renters United said the tenants advocacy group originally asked for a cut of $2 million.
“This office is really doing wrong by renters,” she said. “The sheriff won’t tell tenants when their evictions are scheduled, so it ends up being a surprise. When someone says they’ve paid to stay, the sheriff is often just evicting them anyway, in violation of the law.”
She said the the group will push for Scott to reallocate the money to legal aid.
In a statement, Major Sabrina Tapp-Harper called the cut to the surplus particularly alarming given the current level of city violence.
“This move will have a tremendous impact on the operational support services currently provided to the Baltimore Police Department Patrol Services by the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, support provided for Baltimore City Special Events, service of warrants, and planning and implementation for body worn cameras.,” she said. “Sheriff Anderson is in communication with the Office of the Attorney General, and plans are underway to contact each council member who voted in favor of this budget cut to reverse this bill.”
The narrow vote represents a divide between council factions that broadened at the beginning of budget season, as a group of moderates headed by Councilman Eric Costello called on Scott for increased public safety spending and a short-term crime plan to address a particularly brutal spate of homicides, including the killings of a pregnant woman and her fiancé and a teenager attending a post-prom party.
“We should be ashamed of ourselves, cutting law enforcement at this time,” said Councilman Robert Stokes.
Councilwoman Danielle McCray noted that multiple city agencies have deep inefficiencies, not just the sheriff’s department. “This floor reeks of political posturing,” she said.
Mosby, Stokes and McCray voted no, as did council members Costello, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, Sharon Green Middleton and Antonio Glover.
Glover, who has experienced homelessness, said he could not understand how Ramos’ proposal to divert the money to tenant legal advocacy would keep evicted families from becoming homeless. “I feel we have a sheriff’s office that is underfunded,” he said.
Councilman Mark Conway described it as one of the toughest votes he’s cast.
“I’m very cognizant that this is an election season and it can be perceived as political,” he said. “But I also realize we have a responsibility, a power that is unique. We are elected to make decisions exactly like this.”
Ultimately, he voted yes, saying the council must push for policies that lift the city’s most vulnerable. He was joined by Ramos, as well as council members Phylicia Porter, James Torrence, John Bullock, Ryan Dorsey, Zeke Cohen and Kristerfer Burnett.
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“I’ll remind this body that it may not be tradition to exercise the power to cut, the power’s there,” Burnett said. “If there are other issues we care about, whether it’s recycling, police oversight, the Department of Transportation or infrastructure, we should be doing more of this, not less of it.”
Ramos strategically introduced the measure before the entire council; it would not have passed before the Ways and Means Committee, which is tasked with overseeing agency budget hearings and giving the mayor’s spending proposal a first round of approval. It consists of chairman Costello, Schleifer, Stokes, Middleton and McCray, as well as Dorsey and Burnett.
An hour before the council approved the budget, the Ways and Means committee approved a $196,000 cut from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, a public-private organization that hosts the annual arts festival Artscape. The event was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The city gave BOPA $98,000 to operate the festival each of those years, but at a budget hearing earlier this month, the organization’s CEO Donna Drew Sawyer could not explain to the committee’s satisfaction how that money was spent. Torrence introduced the measure.
Costello said he, Torrence and Dorsey asked BOPA for additional documentation about the organization’s spending, but “the full resolution of the conditions we’re requesting have not yet been met.”
Costello said the council intends to restore the money through the city’s supplemental fund should the organization meet their conditions.
“They’re going to have to spend the next year getting their house in order developing a board that is actually reflective of the arts community of the city, or they’re going to face a very unpleasant reality in the next budget,” Dorsey said.
The committee passed the amendment 5-2, with Schleifer and Stokes dissenting. Stokes called the plan to potentially restore the funds confusing.
“This is very concerning to me, very concerning, to take money out of somewhere and say ‘we’ll give it back,’” he said.
Speaking on WYPR’s Midday program hours before the committee vote, Mayor Scott said his office had already had conversations with BOPA leadership about “making sure that BOPA understands their relationship with the city and how we want them to do better.”
“Arts and culture are critically important to our city, and if they are going to continue arts and culture programming on behalf of our city, they are going to have to shape up,” the Democrat said.
In a statement, Scott touted the budget’s $57 million increase to city schools as part of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the funding of a water billing discount program and the continued provision of core services.
“Passing this budget is a huge win for Baltimore and will allow us to continue moving our city forward towards a better, more vibrant future,” he said.
This season’s budget featured a number of negotiations between the administration and council members that continued into the eleventh hour. Next year, after a charter amendment passed by city voters in 2020 takes effect, the council will have the power to increase or reallocate funding in the city’s budget.