More than halfway into his first term, Mayor Brandon Scott pitched Baltimoreans a renaissance of expanded city services, including longer recreation center hours and the return of weekly curbside recycling at Monday night’s State of the City address.
The annual speech, usually delivered in the winter and this year delayed several times, also allowed the 39-year-old progressive Democrat — who faces a potentially tough bid for reelection next year — an opportunity to promote continued political stability to execute his agenda as he offered a glimpse into future programs.
Scott also announced a new $15 minimum wage for workers employed by Baltimore City and his plans to remove owner-occupied homes from this year’s tax sale.
“You have my word that we will continue to move forward in partnership and build on our wins to achieve our collective vision for Baltimore’s future,” he told a large group of officials, community advocates and residents at the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center.
The lengthy event featured not just Scott’s address but remarks from Council President Nick Mosby, prayers from Rev. Brent Brown, Imam Aquil Ingram and Rabbi Daniel Burg, a performance of the national anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and a recognition of city dignitaries in attendance led by Councilwoman Phylicia Porter.
When the mayor told Mosby he wanted to hold the event at a rec center instead of City Hall, as is customary, the council president said he was thrilled.
“We are unified to support the mayor of this great city of Baltimore,” Mosby said, gesturing to members of the City Council.
“Not an either-or, but a both-and”
After unveiling his administration’s violence prevention plan in 2021, Scott pledged to reduce fatal and nonfatal shootings by 15% each year he is in office. Since this time last year, nonfatal shootings and homicides are down 16% and 21% respectively, he said.
Scott touted progress from his signature Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a focused-deterrence model being piloted in the Western District, which saw a 33% drop in shootings last year. GVRS was introduced to the Southwestern District in January, where homicides and nonfatal shootings have dropped 39% this year, he said.
“You can invest in prevention and intervention while also holding those who choose to engage in violence accountable,” he said to cheers and applause from supporters. “This is not an either-or, but a both-and.”
Despite the decline, Baltimore has seen a devastating rise in violence toward minors and Scott has been under pressure to address it. Nearly 1 in 4 people shot in the city through March were 18 or younger, including 12-year-old Jaylen Richards, who died after being shot from an assault-style rifle in Westport on Saturday. Since the start of the 2022 school year, two dozen high school-age teens have been shot within approximately two blocks of 16 different schools, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis.
“Losing young people to violence should be unacceptable to anyone who lives, works or visits our city,” the mayor said. “We have to invest in them, nurture them, love them, and yes, we must hold them accountable.”
Scott announced that City Hall will roll out a “comprehensive summer youth engagement strategy” that will include extended hours, midnight basketball, pool parties and summer camps at rec centers. He did not provide more specific details or hold a news conference after the speech.
Scott said that several hospitals will become sites of violence intervention partnerships: the University of Maryland Medical System, LifeBridge Health, MedStar Health, Ascension St. Agnes and Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Scott also touted his Returning Citizens Behind the Wall program, which connects Baltimoreans returning home from incarceration to employment.
Gwen Levi, a 78-year-old grandmother who made national news when she missed a phone call from her parole office while in a computer word processing class and was taken back into custody, is a member of the program. She now works as a member outreach coordinator for the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.
She said her favorite part of her job is connecting library patrons to the community and nonprofit resources that they otherwise would not know of.
“I was sad when I came home. I cried — I cried for our city,” said Levi, who attended the mayor’s speech. “But now I have hope. I really do. The mayor is doing a good job of making sure that we get everybody on board and collaborating together.”
New minimum wage and weekly recycling
Scott announced several new initiatives that will impact the more than 15,000 workers employed by Baltimore City: a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the removal of a college degree requirement for many jobs.
He also announced that weekly curbside recycling services would return by the first quarter of 2024. City Hall has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the service: Former mayor Jack Young first shifted it to every other week amid staff shortages tied to the pandemic in 2020. Resuming weekly service was one of Scott’s first major initiatives in office, until he reduced it to biweekly pickups in early 2022, citing the same labor forces as Young.
The pledge is a notable one — DPW published a report in January that estimated it would take until 2026 to resolve widespread staffing problems and make other needed improvements to get the service back on track.
Scott said the city will hit the July deadline through $10,000 bonuses for new and existing commercial drivers who staff pickup crews, as well as 30 new trucks and a $15 million investment in bulk trash operations, residential drop-off centers, and the software that creates pickup routes.
After the speech, Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer pointed out that the first quarter of 2024 could be as late as March of next year.
“That’s pretty far. My hope is that we adjust the budget accordingly to reflect the services that are being provided,” he said. “That’s something we’ll push as we’re about to enter budget season.”
The mayor also committed for the third year in a row to remove owner-occupied homes from the tax sale, an annual process by which the city recoups unpaid property taxes by auctioning off liens to third-party investors, who can charge homeowners steep interest and eventually foreclose on their homes if debts remain unpaid.
He will also launch the Middle Neighborhoods Strategy, a new group of programs administered by the city Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Planning, and Live Baltimore. It will include the Buy Back the Block Initiative, which will provide 270 grants to families with school-age children $10,000 to buy — or $20,000 to buy and renovate — homes they currently rent.
“Baltimore’s renaissance is at hand, but it cannot be a renaissance that displaces those who have been here through thick and thin,” he said.
The wide-ranging speech included other pieces of news: Dr. Letitia Dzirasa will leave her post as head of the health department to serve as deputy mayor for Equity, Health and Human Services. The city will break ground on a new library in Park Heights that will honor activist George Mitchell.
It will replace the library that closed when Scott was a kid growing up in Park Heights.
“When ground is broken in the fall, it will be the first new library built in Baltimore in 15 years,” Scott said.
A vulnerable mayor makes a familiar pitch: stability
The mayor also used the address to position himself as a force of stability for Baltimore as the 2024 election looms large.
“What’s clear is that Baltimore needs strong, dependable and steady leadership that is committed to moving our city forward,” he said. “Instability will only undo the progress we have made.”
Scott is the fifth mayor since 2010 and the longest-serving among the two most recent executives: Former mayor Catherine Pugh resigned amid a corruption scandal in 2019 about halfway into her first term. Then-City Council President Jack Young automatically became mayor after her departure, but he lost the 2020 Democratic primary to Scott, who was elected by his council peers to fill Young’s vacant office.
His speech made clear that the administration’s goals can only be achieved through a second term. “Through steadfast and consistent leadership at the helm, we met challenges head on, weathered the biggest public health crisis in modern history and set our sights on a brighter horizon,” the mayor said.
The Baltimore Banner obtained a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners in late March that asked 500 likely Democratic voters who they would vote for as mayor if the 2024 election were held today. It has a 4.4% margin of error. Only 21% of likely Democratic primary voters said they would reelect Scott.
That’s a vulnerable number for an incumbent. But the mayor performed better than any other potential candidates voters could choose from without being presented any biographical information: Former mayor Sheila Dixon got 18% of respondents’ support, Thiru Vignarajah got 11%, former WBAL reporter Jayne Miller got 7%, Comptroller Bill Henry got 6%, and Councilman Eric Costello got 3%. Another 18% were undecided.
The poll was paid for by a candidate testing the waters for a mayoral run. Scott’s own campaign has also surveyed voters — campaign finance records show he cut a $38,500 check to the polling firm Global Strategy Group in November — but declined to share its results with The Banner, a sign that advisors are not thrilled with its results.
No major candidates have thrown their names in the ring for a run against Scott in 2024.