Mayor Brandon Scott announced Baltimore’s priorities Thursday for the upcoming Maryland General Assembly, outlining a slate of budget requests and policy proposals aimed at reforming tax sale, shoring up public safety and tweaking local traffic enforcement.
The city’s delegation of legislators will join other Maryland leaders in Annapolis for 90 days of lawmaking that kick off next week, marking the first General Assembly session under the leadership of Gov.-elect Wes Moore, a Baltimore resident who has spoken often of his commitment to the city’s needs. The state is also sitting on $3 billion in a Rainy Day Fund and a $2.5 billion surplus.
It’s an alignment that has given local leaders high expectations for what lawmakers can deliver for the city this session. At a news conference Thursday, Scott said partnering with Moore will be “a different ballgame” compared to working with Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who managed a sometimes antagonistic relationship with Baltimore, and who the mayor said “used the city as a punching bag for political talking points.”
Scott outlined an array of targeted policy reforms as well as several funding requests for addressing vacancy, supporting the Baltimore Police Department and bolstering public safety. Still, the Democrat said his administration has always tried to ask for what it needs, characterizing this year’s package as “a little bit more ambitious” now that the city has a roster of allies in decision-making positions.
“My grandmother always said that ‘closed mouths don’t get fed,’” Scott said. “We’re going to be working in partnership with the governor, with the General Assembly, with everyone, to get what we believe is best for Baltimore.”
In a statement, Moore said he is looking forward to working alongside Scott to “strengthen Baltimore’s communities” and emphasized the importance of the city’s success to the rest of Maryland.
“Our team is reviewing all of our partner’s proposals and are excited to work closely with them to determine the best path forward in the weeks and months ahead,” the incoming Democrat said.
With state coffers flush, Baltimore is asking for a total of $497 million dollars this year, a little more than $10 million over the city’s request heading into last session. The city got about half of what it asked for a year ago, according to Scott’s office.
The offices of Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Baltimore-area Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday on the city’s priorities. Ferguson on Wednesday pointed to the need for thoughtful distribution of “limited resources” to address Baltimore’s needs, but added that the new Democratic alignment in Annapolis will allow elected leaders to “be more strategic and more collaborative” than in recent years.
Among the budget asks highlighted by Scott is $100 million aimed at addressing the city’s widespread vacancy challenges through rehabilitation loans, a separate redevelopment fund and an allocation for the Baltimore City Community Land Trust.
The city is also asking for more than $20 million in support for the Police Department, $50 million for the construction of new Police Department facilities in the Northeast and Northwest districts and funding for victim services and other public safety programs such as Safe Streets.
Reforming tax sale and property taxes
Among the top priorities Scott unveiled Thursday is a raft of bills to reform tax sale, the annual process in which the city auctions off unpaid property liens to third-party investors, who can charge homeowners interest on top of their outstanding debt.
Housing activists have long condemned the process as predatory, saying it strips homeowners of wealth. Baltimore does not track the demographics of those affected by tax sale. Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, organizations that host legal clinics for those facing tax sale, say tax sale predominately hurts vulnerable groups: of those who attended the organizations’ 2020 tax sale clinics, 72% were seniors, 48% were disabled and 85% were Black. Nearly three-fourths reported annual household incomes of less than $30,000. Attendees owned their homes for an average of 24 years; nearly three-quarters of them did not have a mortgage.
Tax sale rose to the front of public consciousness during the pandemic, as Baltimoreans were forced to stay home and many lost income. Scott removed owner-occupied homes from the tax sale in both 2021 and 2022 and pledged to reform the process based on a work group’s recommendations.
Scott’s property tax agenda includes three bills set to be introduced on behalf of the mayor and two from members of the Baltimore delegation, a slate that Democratic Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a member of the tax sale work group, called “a bold, really amazing set of reforms,” although she predicted forceful opposition from tax sale purchasers.
One proposal would help protect owner-occupied properties and allow Baltimore to take far more control over the tax sale process, including allowing payment plans or canceling the annual sale. Another would allow the transfer of properties with liens to heirs, while a third would expand a new legal process officials hope will allow the city to acquire more abandoned properties, a key step for addressing the city’s vacancy crisis.
The mayor’s endorsements also include a fundamental change to the implementation of Baltimore’s high property tax rates, set to be introduced by Democratic Del. Regina T. Boyce. The legislation would allow for Baltimore to implement specialized property taxes to “more equitably spread the load” of taxes. Ramos expressed excitement about the potential of such a change to put a dent into the vacancy crisis by moving more abandoned properties into city’s ownership, and also to grant relief or incentivize development in targeted areas.
Another housing proposal seeks to protect renters by expanding the powers of courts in illegal evictions.
Addressing public safety
The mayor’s package also includes a slate of bills aimed at bolstering public safety in the city from a variety of angles. Baltimore is coming off yet another year of more than 300 homicides, and lawmakers and public officials have pointed to reducing crime as an urgent step, not only for public health but for addressing broad economic and population challenges. Scott has pledged to reduce shootings by 15% each year.
Proposals aimed at addressing local public safety concerns include a bill to reduce the time someone on a home monitoring system can go missing before it’s reported to a judge.
Another bill requests the ability for the city to phase out its Civilian Review Board. That would come in tandem with granting additional powers to the investigatory arm of the yet-to-be-formed police accountability board, mandated by a police reform package passed by the General Assembly in 2021 to help build trust in law enforcement by allowing civilian participation in misconduct investigations.
Other proposals would dramatically increase the size of fines that Baltimore’s liquor board can issue, and allow the city to grant authority to the board to shutter businesses for health or safety violations, taking that task off the police department’s plate.
Towing the vehicles of chronic speeding offenders
On top of the handful of bills addressing city crime, Scott laid out several priorities to help the city crack down on repeat traffic offenders.
One bill would authorize the city to impound vehicles whose owners have racked up $1,000 or more in unpaid speed and red light camera fines. The city currently tows cars for unpaid parking tickets, but not for those acquired behind the wheel.
“What this means is that we can boot a driver who has three outstanding $32 parking tickets, each gotten while extending beyond their meter time, harming no one and causing no danger, but if you have a hundred speeding camera tickets we have no recourse,” Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey said. The state bill is a companion to a city bill he introduced last year.
Separate legislation would clarify how much private towers can charge the city and vehicle owners, a fix the Scott administration says would “dramatically decrease” how much the city pays to tow and store trespassing vehicles.
Reporters Pam Wood and Ben Conarck contributed to this story.