Baltimore City Council members unanimously approved a $4.2 billion spending plan Monday without touching the version introduced by Mayor Brandon Scott this spring.

The council’s approval caps off a budget season with fewer fireworks than in recent years. The body passed the spending plan in a 14-0 vote Monday evening with Councilman Zeke Cohen absent. A final vote followed preliminary approvals by the budget oversight committee and city spending board earlier in the day.

The new budget avoids cuts to city services, a daunting prospect many City Hall officials had worried would be necessary this time around. A year ago, Baltimore had to dip into its reserves to approve a balanced budget, and barely six months ago finance officials were warning of a potential shortfall totaling more than $100 million.

The council’s budget now goes to Scott’s desk for a final signature.

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An untouched spending plan

Compared to the marathon oversight hearings of recent years, this budget season ended anticlimactically. For the second year in a row, little came of the City Council’s new authority over the spending plan.

The City Council now has the power to not only cut spending in the mayor’s proposed budget, but to move money around within the spending plan. Last year, these new powers only yielded adjustments around the margins, totaling $12 million — or less than 1% — of the multibillion budget.

And this year, the council didn’t introduce a single amendment to the mayor’s proposed budget.

Council President Nick Mosby, who is overseeing his last budget at the helm of the council, said ahead of the final vote Monday that the process felt more collaborative this year. Council members “got what they needed” from the administration, he said, while the mayor’s office responded to the council’s heightened authority by looping members in on the front-end, including on priorities like increasing salaries for some council staff, granting raises for housing inspectors and ensuring sufficient funding for the city’s Main Streets program.

Despite initial fears that the city could face a budget shortfall of as much as $107 million, several things broke in the city’s favor that resulted in a more manageable $62 million gap. For one, Baltimore didn’t have to pay as much into Maryland’s school funding formula than it had anticipated — the driver behind last year’s squeeze — and some revenue sources like property taxes came in better than projected.

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That allowed the Scott administration to propose a spending plan balanced partly through trimming funds for unfilled positions and a series of measures aimed at boosting revenues with stricter parking enforcement.

Scott celebrated the outcome in a statement after Monday’s council vote and said the budget agreement “maintains important investments” to sustain Baltimore’s drop in gun violence, provide recreation resources for young people, increase the city’s contribution to schools and modernize city operations.

Fewer fireworks

City Council members have been known to use the budget oversight hearings to take political stands. In recent years, that included marathon hearings railing against service reductions, blasting leadership of the city’s arts council and even tense questioning from Councilman Eric Costello, who leads the budget process, which prompted a resignation announcement from the police commissioner.

But aside from a hearing with Baltimore City Public Schools, where council members pressed the school board to renew a contract with the system’s CEO, this budget season passed with few of the heated interrogations agency heads have faced in recent years.

Council members might have opted to spar less with the administration this time around in part because of the results of the Democratic primary election last month, in which several of the council’s most powerful members fell while Scott won a convincing reelection. Both Mosby and Ways and Means Chairman Costello lost to more progressive challengers, potentially constituting a new council more closely aligned with the mayor’s office

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Mosby, Costello go out without a bang

As City Council president and chair of the finance committee, respectively, Mosby and Costello occupy the council’s most visible perches during budget season.

Both Democrats lost their primary elections earlier this year: Mosby to Cohen, and Costello to challenger Zac Blanchard in a razor-thin upset.

In city politics, lame ducks can end their terms quietly or make dramatic moves without fear of political consequences. Mosby, for example, has introduced a charter amendment to reshape the city spending board, which would lessen the mayor’s powerful grip over non-budgetary spending.

Despite the lame ducks at the helm, this year’s budget season was far less contentious than those past.

“This was our easiest budget,” Mosby said ahead of a preliminary council vote.

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Comptroller Bill Henry, who as a member of the city spending board gave a preliminary stamp of approval the mayor’s budget proposal several weeks ago, seemed mildly nonplussed that the budget returned from the council without any edits.

“I just wanted to put on the record,” the Democrat said before a final spending panel vote on Monday, “that this budget is unchanged from what the Board of Estimates previously passed. Or has that changed?”

“It is unchanged,” replied Costello.

The South Baltimore councilman did continue a recent tradition of playing a 1980s dance tune on his cellphone before the council voted to pass the budget. His swan song? “Upside Down” by Diana Ross.

Mayor Scott’s pandemic aid plan is shifting

One revelation of this year’s more pedestrian budget hearings was the Scott administration’s long-promised changes to the city’s pandemic aid spending plan.

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After warning of the possibility for more than a year, the mayor’s pandemic aid office said last month that it will redirect nearly $70 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to different causes.

While Baltimore has until the end of 2026 to spend its $641 million windfall, the city faces an end-of-year deadline to earmark all of the stimulus money. Agencies have been slow to get its money out the door — with many reporting that they have spent only a small fraction of their appropriations — and officials with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs had warned that some recipients might see money pulled back to ensure that city could hit its deadlines.

Even so, much of the pressure on the city lifted, thanks to a recent change in the way the federal government defines obligated funding. In December, the city reported being just halfway to meeting its end-of-2024 requirement, but thanks to the change in federal oversight, Baltimore now finds itself 94% of the way toward compliance with the deadline.

In total, the Scott administration plans to move $66.5 million in pandemic aid originally committed to transportation, health, broadband and public safety initiatives into other programs, including park renovations, city hiring incentives, and scholarships, as well as school and fire house improvements, among other initiatives.

Shamiah Kerney, director of the Office of Recovery Programs, told the council last month that her team will continue to review the city’s pace of spending for potential additional changes.