The Baltimore City Council unanimously voted to shift about $12 million within Mayor Brandon Scott’s 2024 budget proposal on Wednesday, marking the first time in more than a century that council members used such financial authority.
City Council President Nick Mosby said members sought to identify priorities they did not feel were identified in the mayor’s $4.4 billion budget while praising the administration for working thoroughly with the council during a historic budget season.
“This was new for everybody. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of lessons learned going forward,” the Democrat said.
The council overwhelmingly passed the budget for final passage after the mayor-controlled city spending board approved the budget with amendments.
In a statement, Scott said the passage is a testament to the officials’ ability to find common ground and lay out a shared vision for investing in Baltimore’s future.
“Through negotiations and public hearings, we’ve reached a consensus that reflects our values, invests in historically disenfranchised parts of our city, and helps strengthen city government’s ability to deliver for residents,” he said.
The series of amendments to the budget, written after a bustling weekend of negotiations and revisions between the council and the Scott administration, draw on $10 million that would have been spent on more than 200 city positions that have been vacant for at least 18 months.
“Our approach was looking at what we’re calling these aged vacancies, where some positions have not been occupied for three years, to get this money,” Mosby said.
A separate amendment withholds $1.7 million from the beleaguered Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, reserving the money for City Hall to directly manage parts of its portfolio. Lawmakers said there would be no layoffs as a result of the cuts and stressed that Artscape would still go on. The city will still receive a $1.5 million grant from the state to help produce the annual summer arts festival.
“We heard extensively during our hearing with BOPA a significant laundry list of issues with the governance and administration of that organization,” Councilman Eric Costello said, adding that the BOPA board will receive a list of expectations that, if met, could lead the council to restore the funding in a supplementary appropriation later this year.
The cut does not affect the approximately $300,000 that BOPA oversees each year for small artists grants. Costello said the mayor has agreed to appoint an arts commission that will make recommendations on the future of City Hall’s relationship with BOPA.
Brian D. Lyles, chairman and president of BOPA, said staff provide essential resources to Baltimore artists and the group was disappointed with the decision.
“While we’re dismayed by the decision of the City Council to again withhold budgeted funding,” he said in a statement, “we are also committed to working collaboratively with the Council and Office of the Mayor to address their concerns and fortify the governance of BOPA in a way that leaves no doubt about the proper oversight of the organization and the fulfillment of its mandate for the benefit of all Baltimore residents.”
The council’s amendments were first passed earlier Wednesday morning by the Ways and Means Committee. The entire council was scheduled to gather at noon to vote on the budget, but did not meet until after 1 p.m. as eleventh hour negotiations continued. Costello was in hushed exchanges with the mayor’s budget staff until minutes before the meeting began. Multiple sources not authorized to speak publicly said debates about language clarifications between council members and the administrations held up the hearing.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who does not sit on the Ways and Means Committee, attempted to introduce two amendments but could not find a committee member to sponsor them. She had the option to introduce them before the full council but did not do so. They would have moved BOPA from a quasi-city agency fully into the city government and used $2 million to fund attorneys for a foreclosure program for vacant properties.
More than half of the proposed reallocation would go to the Fire Department, which would receive a total of $5,401,000 for upgraded fire equipment.
Mosby noted that none of the city’s $641 million in federal pandemic stimulus money went to the Fire Department. “We wanted to make sure they get what they need,” the Democrat said.
Since Baltimore voters gave the council the authority to move money around the budget, City Hall observers eyed the backlog of laws that are on the books but remain unfunded. The amendments call for funding two of them: $1 million will go to the Dante Barksdale Career Technology Apprenticeship Fund for vocational training, which connects youth to trade school programs and scholarships in honor of the slain Safe Streets activist.
The council committee also passed an amendment to refund the Home Security Rebate Program to the tune of $200,000. The law, passed by the council in 2020, gives residents up to a $150 rebate for installing a home security camera. The program’s money had lapsed and Scott did not refill it in his draft proposal.
Another $2 million will bolster Baltimore’s surveillance abilities: half would go toward additional CitiWatch cameras, while the other half would fund CitiWatch infrastructure improvements.
Recreation and Parks will receive another $950,000, most of which would go to increased sports programming for middle schoolers at rec centers. About $150,000 would fund renovations at the Lillian Jones Recreation Center in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
A quarter of a million dollars will go toward improvements for Department of Public Works’ solid waste workers facilities, where showers and other bathroom upgrades will be installed.
Another $125,000 will fund façade improvements throughout the city, to be distributed through the Baltimore Development Corporation, and a final $74,000 will fund a language access coordinator.
The $10 million in cuts affected a wide variety of departments and teams, including housing code enforcement, media production, IT services, the solid waste division, rec and parks and snow and ice control.
If the positions stayed vacant, each department would have been able to use the money for additional operational expenses.
The BOPA amendment on Tuesday’s docket is not the one initially proposed by Councilman Zeke Cohen. He previously said he would try to move $1 million from BOPA to a program he founded that connects people struggling with addiction and substance to peers with similar experiences in the city’s library system, but he withdrew the amendment over the weekend.
Cohen was the sole councilmember to vote no on the final passage of the budget. He said he was disappointed he did not reach an agreement with the mayor.
“This process has furthered my belief that Baltimore needs some form of participatory budgeting,” the Democrat tweeted.