It’s become something of a tradition.

As bleary-eyed Baltimore City Council members shuffle into the Du Burns Council Chambers to push the budget across the finish line, Councilman Eric Costello leans back in his chair and blares a series of oldies but goodies — Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” Diana Ross’s “Upside Down,” and, of course, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — from his smartphone speaker, to either the delight or chagrin of his peers.

The crack in Costello’s otherwise no-nonsense budget oversight as chair of the Ways and Means Committee is just one glimpse into the marathon budget process. Now that the dust has settled and councilmembers, aides and budget staff are taking their comp time, here are reflections on what this budget season has left us.

Mayor Scott and City Council wanted to set precedents, and both got wins

Since 2020, when city voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment designed to weaken the strong mayor system by granting the council expanded financial powers, some council members and aides have waited with bated breath for this year — when the law went into effect and gave the council the ability to not just cut but move money within the mayor’s budget proposal.

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That anticipation heightened last year, during a heated budget season where agency hearings lasted early into the morning and often turned spicy. Council members privately groused that they wouldn’t forget feeling jerked around by the administration when they were armed with new powers the next summer.

But the administration had two new assets of their own this year: City Administrator Faith Leach, who multiple council members praised repeatedly for her responsiveness and clarity, and Chief of Staff Marvin James, who, as Scott’s 2020 campaign manager, was intimately acquainted with each council member’s varying political needs, networks and strategies.

Ultimately the process ended with a joint news conference between Council President Mosby, his council member allies Costello, Mark Conway, Antonio Glover, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, John Bullock, and Robert Stokes side-by-side with Leach. Each praised the level of cooperation and respect that went into negotiations.

“This was a difficult budget year for the city of Baltimore, but what we did is work together,” Leach said. “We did the hard things, we had difficult conversations and we did what the citizens deserved. I, for one, am proud of the budget we put forward.”

The council’s changes managed to assert some force: It funded two laws passed by council members that the mayor chose not to bankroll and added $5 million for Fire Department trucks and equipment. That gave Mosby yet another chance to make his favorite critique of the Scott administration: how $641 million in federal pandemic stimulus has been allocated. The mayor did not set aside any stimulus money for the department.

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The council’s new power ultimately affected less than 1% of the budget

The council made less than $1 million in cuts to the mayor’s budget last year. They touched more money this year with $12 million in reallocations, but that long-hyped new financial authority only shakes up 0.27% of the mayor’s multibillion- dollar budget.

Compare that to 2020, when then-City Council President Scott and his colleagues cut more than $22 million from the Police Department budget and unsuccessfully lobbied then-Mayor Jack Young to move the money to other public safety programs.

Mosby said he and his team have spoken with officials in Detroit, Philadelphia and Wilmington, where local councils have long had some financial oversight over the budget process. “In many other cities, the council has 52 weeks to review the budget, not two and a half weeks,” he said.

In Baltimore, the mayor’s budget team spends most of the year working on the proposal, but a basic draft is not unveiled to the public until April. The council does not begin interviewing agency leaders about their proposed budgets until late May, and by law, the council must pass a balanced budget by the end of June, before the next fiscal year begins.

If the council had three or six more months to work on the budget, more items would have changed, the Democrat said. “But we deal with an abridged timeline and we have limited resources compared to colleagues around the state and country. I’m pleased with what we did with the time we had,” he said.

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There’s another obstacle the council faces in making a transformative budget process: political division within the 15-person body. Though the council consists entirely of Democrats, there are different factions. Notably absent from Mosby and Leach’s news conference was the council’s progressive wing: Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey and Odette Ramos.

Passing any law, including the budget, requires a majority vote, and getting a dramatic budget amendment through the council would require a whole lot of politicking. Ramos was unable to find a member of the Ways and Means committee to sponsor two proposed budget amendments.

Soft power led to better outcomes for some council members

Two days before former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced his resignation, Costello started off the police department’s budget hearing with a bang, repeatedly asking the official whether he intended to fulfill the rest of his contract.

Harrison’s refusal to directly answer the line of questioning did not help to quell the rumors of his impending departure that he himself addressed during his budget presentation, and less than 48 hours later, Harrison stood beside Scott and department brass as he announced his exit.

Meanwhile, the highest profile proposed amendment of the budget process did not survive. Cohen said midway through budget week that he would try to move $1 million from the beleaguered Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts to the library system. He said on Twitter that he is disappointed he was unable to come to an agreement with the administration.

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Other members achieved wins for their districts in line item allocations in negotiations with James and Leach, including upgrades to a rec center in the 7th District surrounding Druid Hill Park, which Council President Mosby formerly represented.

Bracing for changes to pandemic aid plan?

Though City Council members have no control over Baltimore’s windfall of federal American Rescue Plan aid, Scott’s spending plan for that $641 million underpinned many of the board’s rigorous budget hearings.

The mayor has divided the money across dozens of projects touching nearly every corner of city government, but spending of the one-time influx has chugged along only gradually — just 14.4% of the city’s millions had been spent by the end of April. Meanwhile, federal deadlines inch closer by the day: Baltimore has until the end of 2024 to obligate all of its pandemic aid and until the end of 2026 to spend it all.

Over two budget hearings in recent weeks, the Scott administration signaled that changes could be coming to the mayor’s $641 million spending plan. Shamiah Kerney, who oversees the mayor’s pandemic aid office, said her office has started to analyze agencies’ rates of spending and reiterated that the administration is prepared to pull back money from projects that don’t look like they’ll come together on time.

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$79M bill could foreshadow cuts to come

Looming over this budget was a larger-than-anticipated $79 million bill Baltimore must pay through the state’s new education formula. The cost is set by the sweeping 2021 legislation known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which rewrote formulas for how state and local governments fund public schools. City finance officials hadn’t expected Baltimore to be on the hook for such a hefty bill until near the end of the decade, initially predicting a much smaller $12 million increase to schools funding this year.

Though Baltimore leaders have emphasized the city’s commitment to a more robust investment in public education, they were also blunt about the burden of the new formula. Scott called the bill a “gut punch” when he announced his spending plan in April.

And while budget writers were able to pass a balanced spending plan this year without cuts to city services, budget director Laura Larsen said “all options are going to have to be on the table” in future years. Scott has spoken with Gov. Wes Moore and other Democratic leaders in Annapolis and expressed confidence that they will find a solution. But barring revisions to the state education law, Blueprint dues could mean hard choices for Baltimore’s budget-writers are just around the corner.

emily.sullivan@thebaltimorebanner.com

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com