While Baltimore leaders toil over the ramifications of a big, surprise hike in the city’s dues for education funding in Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4.4 billion spending plan, residents voiced their own concerns Wednesday night on a wide range of issues in the budget, from funding for police to libraries to emergency rental assistance.

A meeting of the city’s Board of Estimates Wednesday morning offered the first public forum for other elected officials to weigh in on the mayor’s spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1.

Later in the day, dozens of residents and advocates turned out at City Hall to lobby the Scott administration on their funding priorities, the first of two annual taxpayers’ nights. The event has traditionally drawn both individuals and advocacy groups and been dominated in recent years by calls for cuts to the police budget. Concerns this year were wide ranging, from investments in youth programming to the public library system to a long-awaited West Baltimore skate park to millions of dollars in demanded support for tenants facing eviction.

The spending board’s two non-administration members, Comptroller Bill Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby, asked only a handful of questions about the spending plan Wednesday morning. The Board of Estimates meeting kicked off a historic budget season in which Baltimore’s City Council will have new powers over the budgeting process and can reallocate spending, though how exactly they will flex those muscles remains to be seen.

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So far, concerns from both the administration and other city leaders have largely centered around a $79 million increase the city has to pay into education based on new state formulas, an unexpected bill Scott called a “gut punch” when he presented the budget. The administration drew on reserves to help balance this year’s budget — a requirement under city law — but it’s only a short-term fix. The city’s chief budget officer, Laura Larsen, told reporters earlier this month that “all options are going to have to be on the table” for future years.

Following a rundown of the budget at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates, Henry questioned why the city’s education dues have jumped so dramatically, even as state payments are holding steady this year. The increase is based on formulas in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the sweeping, 2021 law pitched as a way of funneling more money from both state and local governments into schools.

City Council Hearing Annual Taxpayers Night on April 26, 2023 was a chance for Baltimore city taxpayers to voice their opinions about how the city spends their money. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

“I’m just concerned about — at this point — how do we trust future projections?” Henry asked.

Scott said he shares the comptroller’s concern and added that he’s heard similar sentiments from peers in other parts of the state, such as Prince George’s County. The city has discussed the issue with Gov. Wes Moore, and the mayor expressed assurance that state leaders will work with Baltimore to find a solution for future years. And though the first-term Democrat acknowledged the hard choices that the education dues may present for the city, he also stressed the importance of supporting schools.

“We are doing this because funding our schools at the level they should be is the right thing to do,” he told the board. “We had to make tough decisions over the last few years. We’re going to continue to have to make adjustments.”

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Baltimore’s $79 million funding increase stems from a slight increase in Baltimore’s wealth that bumped the city into a new tier with dramatically less matching support from the state, as well as changes to the way the state measures child poverty. Initial estimates had the city paying just $12 million more for education than it did the year before.

This year’s proposed budget is slightly larger than the year before and includes $3.5 billion in operating expenses and around $900 million in capital planning. City revenues grew by $90 million last year, a smaller-than-usual increase that officials have attributed to inflation.

At the evening’s taxpayers’ night, a vocal contingent turned out to voice support for greater investment in tenant protections, with specific demands laid out by the group Baltimore Renters United. Samantha Gowing, an attorney with Public Justice Center, called on city leaders to invest $1.6 million to implement legislation guaranteeing renters’ right to counsel and $25 million for emergency rental assistance, as the city’s pool of federal funds run dry.

“These demands may require a radical reimagining of the budget,” said Gowing, but she suggested the city has millions to work with that it is giving away in tax breaks for developers in affluent parts of town, even as Black residents face disproportionate risks of eviction. “The people of Baltimore deserve a budget that invests in the people who are already here, the people who make Baltimore what it is,” she said.

After appeals from several residents for tenant protections, Scott pointed out the $5 million he announced for emergency rental assistance in his State of the City speech earlier this month. There is also some money already budgeted to facilitate residents’ rights to attorney representation in eviction cases, Larsen said after the meeting.

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Debra Elfenbein, a librarian in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, was among a group of residents who showed up Wednesday night to lobby on behalf of the city library system. Enoch Pratt branches are crucial to education and social services, said library system union member Elfenbein, who called for better working conditions for library employees. “We can’t do it if we’ve got cuts to the city budget.”

Enoch Pratt is one of numerous city agencies that are seeing trims in this year’s budget — about $2.6 million in the case of the library system — a cost-savings measure to accommodate the huge spike in education funding. But Larsen told the Board of Estimates Wednesday morning that the cuts at Enoch Pratt do not necessitate any changes to the library system’s services, and are instead temporary cutbacks proportional with the agency’s sizable number of vacant positions. There are also built-in salary increases anticipated from upcoming union negotiations by the union, Larsen said.

A sign sits outside of City Hall during the Annual Taxpayers Meeting on April 26, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

Both Mosby and Ways and Means Committee Chair Eric Costello said it’s too soon to say where City Council aims to make changes to this year’s budget, or how substantive those edits may be. A more detailed budget proposal including line items for every agency is expected later this spring.

Costello said he’s paying particular attention to funding for youth services, as the city is seeing a surge in youth gun violence, as well as city services like recycling pick-up. The Department of Public Works is currently running scaled back, biweekly recycling services, a source of continual frustration for many members of City Council, who a year ago staged a six-hour protest during budget hearings to demand that public works officials reinstate the service on a weekly basis.

Scott’s preliminary budget includes funding for 37 new public works positions to fill about 10 new trash and recycling crews. He wants weekly recycling restored by early 2024.

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Meanwhile, city funding for policing, the biggest community flashpoint of the last two budget cycles, is set to remain essentially flat, though the agency’s overall budget would increase by nearly $5 million thanks to grant funding through the state. As City Council president, Scott spearheaded $22 million in cuts from the department’s budget, but as mayor he has overseen two hikes in police funding, first with a $28 million increase in 2021 and then with a $5 million increase a year ago. This time, his proposed budget makes room for $524.9 million in police funding out of the city general fund, compared to the current year’s $525.1 million.

This year’s overall increase was a point of frustration for some in attendance Wednesday night. Heather Johnson with Communities United echoed calls for tenant protections while lamenting prioritizations for both the Police Department and sheriff’s office.

“Although my hat says ‘Defund the Police,’ I’m not going to talk about that part,” Johnson said, calling instead for the city not to give away millions in subsidies for developers while “investing in the same failed patterns of increased police spending.”

A second taxpayers’ night will be hosted by the City Council in late May. Council members will then hash out appropriations for each city agency and must pass a budget ahead of the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government. 

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