Baltimoreans on Wednesday night will have the first of two chances to voice their feelings about Mayor Brandon Scott’s 2024 budget directly to City Hall, kicking off a historic budget season marking expanded budget authority for City Council members.
Tonight’s event will be hosted by the Board of Estimates — a group stacked in favor of the mayor, which consists of two of his appointees as well as City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry. Scott officially kicked off the budget season last week when he presented the panel with his $4.4 billion preliminary spending plan for fiscal year 2024.
The City Council will host another Taxpayers’ Night in late May, shortly before the legislative body will hold budget hearings for each city agency allocated money.
What are residents likely to bring up?
Baltimoreans have traditionally spent several hours each Taxpayers’ Night pitching for more or less funding for specific agencies and delivering visions for how their reallocations should be spent. The event, which usually takes place at City Hall and was held online during the height of the pandemic, attracts both individuals and members of activist groups who attend in coordination. Each participant has two minutes to make their pitch.
Tonight’s attendees will only have a draft of the budget to inform their testimony — the Scott administration will release a more detailed draft with line item allocations to the council later this spring, before residents can attend the second Taxpayers’ Night with the City Council present in late May.
The proposal represents a 5% growth from the budget year ending June 30. Among its most striking changes from last year is an uptick in education funding related to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sweeping law that added billions in new money for schools across the state. It rewrote the formula that finances districts, which went into effect this budget season.
City Hall officials now plan to pay $79 million more to fund Baltimore schools, a hike that they have called surprising due to changes in population and income levels they say they did not expect until later this decade. Meanwhile, the city’s revenue grew by only $90 million last year— a smaller increase than usual, which finance officials attribute to inflation.
The paltry growth, combined with the additional Blueprint funding that officials say they were unprepared for, translates to relatively little new discretionary budget funding. (The proposal does not account for $641 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, which Scott controls as chief executive.)
Funding for education and police are historically two of the most discussed issues at Taxpayers’ Night. Scott’s proposed spending for the Police Department is nearly unchanged from last year: current funding is $525.1 million; and the next budget proposes $524.9 million and calls for no changes to sworn staffing levels.
Scott’s plan calls for five new civilian positions on the Police Department’s victim services team, which currently operates in the Western and Southern districts. It would also support 20 new positions on the police accountability board.
A Baltimore Banner survey conducted by the Goucher College Poll last May found that most residents are wary of reducing the police budget. The poll is the most recent public survey of Baltimoreans’ attitudes toward issues, solutions and funding; it had a 3.09% margin of error.
The poll found that city residents were eager to find solutions for crime — 90% of respondents called it a major issue — but were conflicted about their preferred solutions. When asked if the Baltimore Police budget should increase, decrease or stay the same, 16% of respondents said it should decrease, a third said it should stay the same and 44% said it should grow.
But more than half of respondents who said the police budget should increase also supported moving some BPD funding into social services.
Some council members have said the night doesn’t matter, but others say it will inform their actions
Mosby said it’s too early to tell whether the council will have major areas of concern in this year’s budget, given that they have not yet seen the details.
The City Council will have expanded budget authority this year, including the ability to reallocate the mayor’s spending. But Mosby said members will analyze the budget in the same way they have over the past two years.
“We’ll thumb through the budget like we’ve always done, assuring that core competencies, urgent aspects of service and the needs of the city” are taken care of, he said. “Those projections will ultimately determine how we can allocate funding throughout the budget.”
One thing that will look different this year, he said, is that the council will have a special briefing with Bureau of the Budget and Management Research to examine how revenue is certified.
“We want to ensure that we’re not giving away revenue and moving in the wrong direction associated with the revenue that is owed to the taxpayer,” he said. That includes how income from Interstate 83 speed camera tickets is spent to ensuring the city isn’t getting the short end of the stick in any of its business dealings, such as leases of city-owned space or Baltimore’s new deal with BGE for conduit maintenance and access.
Mosby, along with Ways and Means Chair Councilman Eric Costello, were adamant that the council will listen intently to taxpayers who attend the two events.
“I view the preliminary budget as a broad description of where we’re headed, subject to change before the council receives it,” Costello said.
Other council members have criticized Taxpayers’ Night as a political farce. Councilman Ryan Dorsey sat out the event last year, saying on Twitter that he thinks it “misleads people into believing their testimony will make a difference.”
But when it’s the council’s turn to hear from residents, they may very well use Taxpayers’ Night to nibble at the margins of the relatively minor amount of discretionary funding.
At the end of the day, all Baltimoreans, despite their differing political leanings, want the same things, Costello said: “fulfillments of the basic services that residents can see and touch and feel every day,” from enforcement of parking violations and illegal dumping to “a robust group of meaningful programming options for the youth we’re supporting.”
And many council members shared those concerns, he added.
Both Mosby and Costello stressed City Hall’s obligation to meet their mandatory funding level for the Blueprint. That’s not up for debate or discussion, Costello said.
“The goal for me is to pass a balanced budget that the council can walk away feeling proud of,” he said. “The city’s level of preparedness to meet that [schools funding] obligation is certainly something we’ll be talking about, in terms of revenues, projections and non-discretionary expenses, and recognizing there’s only so much room for movement in the budget.”
By law, the council must pass a balanced budget before this fiscal year draws to a close at the end of June.