The Baltimore City Council is due to vote on Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4 billion budget this week, an annual process — which due to the council’s limited budget authority serves more of a temperature check on the relationship between the mayor and the legislative body than an actual flex of political power. The final vote could happen as early as Tuesday evening.
While some members may vote no, the council’s hands are ultimately tied: City law requires the budget to be passed at least five days before July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. But during this year’s tumultuous budget process, members kept agency leaders in marathon hearings and aired sharp grievances with Scott’s spending plan. It stands in stark contrast to the last budget season, in which members unanimously passed the budget and hearings did not stray too far from the routine.
The council used the budget season spotlight to question Scott’s funding priorities
At a nearly six-hour-long hearing for the Department of Public Works, members demanded a plan from its director, Jason Mitchell, to restart weekly recycling collections and resume street sweeping. The DPW has collected recycling every other week since January, citing a shortage of workers. Mitchell also pointed to rising inflation and a lack of parking enforcement that prevents streets from being accessible for street sweeping.
“I don’t like the answer. What I want is a plan,” replied Councilwoman Danielle McCray. “I represent mostly middle-class neighborhoods that are not receiving the services that we are paying for.”
Members also made their frustrations with Scott’s federal stimulus funding clear. The American Rescue Plan Act gave Baltimore $641 million in pandemic relief money. The administration has allocated about $480 million toward a wide array of initiatives, from violence prevention programming to COVID-19 contact tracing. The DPW has not received any ARPA money, despite submitting more than 30 applications totaling at least $200 million to Scott’s stimulus funding office. That doesn’t necessarily mean the DPW’s applications have been rejected, City Administrator Chris Shorter noted at the hearing.
Council members still took issue with the stimulus funding, lamenting that some should be used to restore the city’s basic services.
Questions followed high-profile homicides
Some members of the council set the city’s public safety departments up for a contentious budget season before the hearings even began. In late May, after a string of particularly brutal violent crime incidents including the killings of a high school junior at a post-prom party and a pregnant woman and her fiancé, Councilman Eric Costello led five other members in writing letters to the Baltimore Police Department, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the State’s Attorney’s Office. Costello, whose district includes downtown and the South Baltimore peninsula, demanded, among other things, specific plans for ARPA funding.
At the hearings themselves, members had direct criticism for BPD Commissioner Michael Harrison, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and MONSE director Shantay Jackson. They questioned the mayor’s financial decisions and lamented the city’s horrendous violent crime.
“I am absolutely disgusted with the state of public safety in this city,” said Costello, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, as he kicked off the seven-hour BPD hearing.
Two agencies called back for more answers
The council also forced two agencies to return for additional hearings, saying their leaders provided unsatisfactory answers. The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, or BOPA, produces city arts programming, including Artscape. The annual arts festival was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic.
The city gave BOPA $98,000 for Artscape each of those years, but BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer could not explain to the council’s satisfaction how that money was spent.
Costello has said the council will pass the budget with an amendment to withhold $196,000 — the total amount of Artscape funding for 2020 and 2021 — from the $2.6 million set aside for BOPA, unless Sawyer presents them with more information about the office’s operations.
“There are significant concerns abut the organization, the direction it’s heading and the extent to which it truly treats the mayor and City Council as a trusted partner,” the Democrat said.
He also ordered another Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office hearing, after Sheriff John Anderson did not show up to answer the council’s questions, sending his deputies instead. “I’m not sure we can really get into conversations without the sheriff actually being present,” said Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety Committee, after the council tried questioning Anderson’s deputies.
Anderson appeared before the council on Tuesday morning. Before opening the hearing, Costello disclosed that he endorsed Anderson’s opponent, former top deputy Sam Cogen, in the Democratic primary race for sheriff.
“Do you feel that’s a conflict of interest before we open?” he asked Anderson.
“No sir,” Anderson replied.
Cogen was seated in the front row during the hearing, directly behind Anderson and the rest of his former colleagues.
The hearing turned contentious at times, particularly around how Anderson’s office serves eviction warrants in apartment buildings. Councilwoman Odette Ramos said that city tenants being evicted from apartment buildings have gotten notices posted in the building’s common areas, despite a 2001 opinion from then-Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. that said notices must instead be posted on the doors to the individual units in which tenants dwell. Anderson himself requested the opinion.
“Eviction is traumatic and it’s even worse when you don’t know it was coming because you weren’t properly served,” Ramos said.
Anderson pushed back, saying that his office is indeed acting by statute, citing comments from a judge.
“Anytime that the deputy arrives at the property in a landlord and tenant case, if there’s any question, that matter is brought back to the judge in District Court, which I believe is Judge [L. Robert] Cooper. What we do is follow the statute,” he said, adding that the judge said the General Assembly “should take the matters up.”
“It is the entire purpose of the Attorney General to clarify that,” Councilman Ryan Dorsey said incredulously. “And after seeking this opinion yourself, 21 years ago, you have sought to have somebody else provide an opinion to the contrary?”
Anderson said that his deputies are sometimes unable to access individual units, particularly if an apartment building is locked beyond its common area.
“If they can’t get in to post a particular apartment, then they post in the common area. If they can get in, then they go up to the door of the same apartment in question,” he said.
The AG’s opinion notes there are extenuating circumstances where accessing an individual unit is not possible. “But a locked door is not one of those,” Dorsey said. “The [eviction] is being done on behalf of the landlord plaintiff, and therefore in collaboration with the landlord plaintiff, who owns the property and has access throughout the property.”
Most budget hearings happened without City Council President Nick Mosby
Council President Nick Mosby did not attend most hearings in person; he attended those of the DPW and BPD. Previous council presidents, including Scott and Jack Young, did not attend every council budget hearing in full but appeared and asked questions at most of them. Mosby’s spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
“There was very regular and consistent communication throughout the process, multiple times throughout every day, between me and the City Council president and his senior staff,” Costello said.
In May, Baltimore’s ethics board found that Mosby violated City Hall’s ethics ordinance by accepting contributions to a legal defense fund established after the council president’s wife, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, became the target of a federal criminal probe. An investigation from the city ethics board found that controlled donors — people doing or seeking to do business with the city — had contributed to the fund.
Mosby has denied any wrongdoing and has filed an appeal of the ruling.
How this year’s budget season tone sets the stage for next year’s
How the Scott administration and council arrive at an agreement on this budget has ramifications — next year the City Council will gain new authority over the annual spending plan than it has had before.
The council can only cut money from the budget. When then-City Council President Scott led a charge to cut $22 million from the police budget in 2020, he was unable to reallocate it elsewhere. Though Scott asked then-Mayor Young to put the money toward extending rec center hours and trauma services, Young chose to let the money roll into a surplus.
Baltimore voters overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment in 2020 to restructure this power. Starting July 1 — after this year’s budget season is due to conclude — the council will be able to reallocate the money it cut, which may give the members more of an incentive to cut items in the first place.