Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen is attempting to use the council’s new budget-writing powers, seeking to move $1 million from the city’s beleaguered public-private arts organization to the library system.

Cohen submitted the amendment Thursday morning, after a routine law department budget hearing the day before revealed the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts attempted to trademark the annual Artscape festival, which it produces with city money.

BOPA is funded by the city but run by a private board. Over the last year City Hall has disagreed with BOPA leadership over events the group is contracted to produce. In January, Mayor Brandon Scott called for, and received, the resignation of BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer after the group announced it would not stage a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

“In Baltimore, we should not have to choose between equity and effective delivery of city services. We deserve both,” Cohen said at a news conference outside City Hall, joined by Councilmembers Kristerfer Burnett and Odette Ramos.

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Where does Cohen want the money to go?

Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system operates 21 neighborhood libraries, along with the Central Library, State Library Resource Center, two bookmobiles and a mobile jobs vehicle.

The library system is set to receive a $42,962,164 agency allocation from the mayor’s $4.4 billion budget proposal. That appears to be an approximately $2.6 million reduction from last fiscal year, but only because a state grant is flowing directly to the library this year instead of first going through the city to dole out to the library. “This is a technical change and has no impact on the agency or service provided,” the proposal reads.

The proposal calls for 12 new positions for public services, programs and security. Scott administration officials hope the library system will host 1.2 million visits and 145,000 program participants this fiscal year.

The library system has other pockets of money throughout the city’s budget, including $7.25 million in federal stimulus spending for systemwide HVAC improvements and a new Park Heights library. Another $4.4 million will be spent to expand internet services to libraries through the Office of Broadband and Digital Equity.

Cohen wants an additional $1 million to implement the Peer Navigators program at every library in Baltimore. The program places Baltimoreans with experience in addiction and behavioral health issues, either personally or through loved ones, in libraries to reach community members seeking help. It operates in six library branches — Brooklyn, Central Library, Cherry Hill, Edmondson, Southeast Anchor and Walbrook — through a combination of grants. The program originated in the Pennsylvania Avenue library, which is on pause as the building is renovated.

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Cohen noted that nearly three times as many Baltimoreans die from overdoses as from homicide. Placing peer navigators in the library, an idea that stemmed from his trauma-informed task force, is a brilliant and bold solution, he said.

“I watched on video as a peer administered Narcan to a patron who was in the midst of an overdose,” he said. “Thankfully, she was revived. That act from that peer navigator probably saved her life.”

What’s the deal with BOPA?

A run of negative BOPA news began this time last year. The council voted to cut $196,000 from the public-private agency after Sawyer could not adequately explain how money the office received for Artscape in 2020 and 2021, cancelled both years due to the pandemic, was spent.

In January, the group was at the center of a weeklong dispute over the canceled parade, one of several events the city contracts BOPA to produce, including the Baltimore Book Festival, Light City, the Baltimore Farmers’ Market and holiday fireworks displays.

Programming is not the extent of BOPA’s purpose. It also serves as the city’s arts council and film office and distributes grant awards to arts organizations and individual artists. It manages the Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower and the historic Cloisters Castle, among other sites.

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Thursday morning, after nearly half a year of going without an interim CEO, the board announced it had selected documentarian and businessman Todd Yuhanick for the acting position until a permanent replacement can be found.

The mayor’s budget proposal calls for $4,126,000 to go to BOPA in the budget year beginning July 1. That’s a big increase from the approximately $2,304,700 in last fiscal year’s proposal — but it includes $1.5 million in one-time state funding the city won to support Artscape this summer. A separate sum of $111,853 is set aside specifically for Bromo-Seltzer Arts Tower maintenance.

The mayor’s proposal spells out several performance measures for BOPA, saying the public-private office must provide each community statistical area access to its services, host about 750,000 guests at events, and generate $198,670,000 in economic impact for the city.

What will the mayor and the rest of the council do?

The amendment directly tests a new financial power for the council that went into effect this year. For more than a century, the legislative body could only cut, not move, money within the mayor’s budget proposal. The restrictions are a big reason the city is considered a strong mayor system.

The proposal’s fate lies with the council’s Ways and Means committee, which is a mix of Scott and Cohen allies chaired by Eric Costello and including Burnett, Ryan Dorsey, Danielle McCray, Sharon Green Middleton, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Robert Stokes.

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Last year, the committee passed the cuts to BOPA 5-2, with Schleifer and Stokes dissenting.

Scott’s chief of staff, Marvin James, and interim director of government relations, Nina Themelis, will likely attempt to whip Cohen and other council members away from the cut, potentially through offers to direct grants or budget money to their pet causes.

James said he looks forward to hearing more about Cohen’s request.

Both the administration and council members have signaled there is not much room for movement within the budget, pointing to what city budget analysts have called an unexpected additional $79 million in schools funding tied to the new formula legislated by the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

Asking the council to flex its power by moving $1 million is big — but so are many council members’ frustrations with BOPA after a year of negative headlines.

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The council will meet for BOPA’s budget hearing Friday evening.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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