Baltimore voters asked to approve special fund for youths, but without some details

City voters will be asked to set up a youth fund, before officials decide how the money will be distributed.

Baltimore officials are asking voters to let them set aside millions of tax dollars in a special fund for youth activities and programs. But voters aren't being told how officials will oversee the fund or distribute its money.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who sponsored the legislation that put the question on the November ballot, says investing more money in children and teens is key to improving Baltimore.

The fund is one of 11 ballot questions to be put to Baltimore voters in November. Officials are also asking voters to approve bonds for school construction, park and library maintenance and economic development; permission for outdoor eating stands at the Inner Harbor's Rash Field and West Shore Park; the creation of an affordable-housing trust fund; and more frequent audits of city agencies.

The youth fund measure — "Question E" on the ballot — would commit the city to setting aside more than $11 million a year. That's on top of the nearly $375 million the city already spends on schools, prekindergarten, after-school programs, libraries and youth health services.

While youth advocates say more reading enrichment programs, safe zones and organized sports are needed in the city, government watchdog groups warn that creating a special fund without accountability measures in place could invite "mischief."

"It is a legitimate concern, if this fund is going to be established, that it have a rigorous set of controls," said Christopher Summers, president of the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute. "It's for the children, the youth, and that's important, but you have to have measures in place to see if the money is being spent on programs that are effective."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said creating such a fund would be fiscally irresponsible. She vetoed the legislation, an action the council unanimously overrode.

Dedicating tax dollars for the new fund would tie the hands of future mayors, Rawlings-Blake has argued, and in tight budget years could force cuts to core city services. She called the effort "feel-good, election-year spending promises."

City finance director Henry Raymond says the administration stands ready to help establish the fund if voters approve its creation — including adding measures to ensure full accountability so any programs that receive tax dollars achieve results.

"We'll enter into this with a spirit of cooperation to ensure the scarce resources are used in the most effective and efficient manner possible," Raymond said.

The city's contribution to the fund would be determined by the value of its assessable property. The latest estimate of the city's assessable base is $37.9 billion, which would mean $11.4 million for the youth fund. That amount could be supplemented by private donations.

If the fund is approved, Young plans to push legislation that would create a committee to review applications and issue grants.

Young says he wants members of the public — including youths — to help decide how that money is spent. He says he plans to create a task force that would solicit input from the public on how to use the money

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the task force would allow "the government to take a step back and [let] folks in the community take a step forward."

Davis said it makes sense to wait until after voters approve the fund to ask for community feedback on how it should work and deciding how to distribute future grants, taking one step at a time.

But Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland, said writing legislation to govern the fund before November would give voters more confidence in how the money would be spent.

"At a minimum, have the legislation drafted to show intent, ready for public review so people know what they're voting on," Bevan-Dangel said.

Bevan-Dangel noted that ballot questions proposed in Baltimore are often approved. She called it a "culture of yes" among voters that is not consistently seen elsewhere in the country.

All 10 of the questions on the city's 2014 ballot, for example, were approved overwhelmingly.

Jaime Alison Lee, director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore, said the youth fund could be seen as an opportunity to give the public more direct control of government spending.

"If it's done well, it can be really powerful," Lee said.

Lee said Young's vision for the youth fund is in line with "participatory budgeting" that is being used in cities across the country to include the public in decisions about how tax dollars are spent.

Lee said voters must stay on top of the youth fund to ensure spending is transparent and "promises of participation aren't ultimately so watered down that they are just tokenism."

Shawn Grime runs the Digital Harbor Foundation, which serves about 1,500 Baltimore youths a year. He said the fund could allow his organization to compete for more dollars. The money could go toward enrolling more children and teens in programs that teach interactive electronics, 3-D printing and computer coding.

"This is a huge opportunity; it's a preventative action, rather than a response to the symptoms of crime or other issues," Grimes said. "This is a positive sign of innovation within our city."

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Proposed charter amendments

Baltimore voters will be asked to approve 10 ballot questions, including several charter amendments.

•Should the city amend the charter to award more contracts to local, small and disadvantaged businesses? The proposal is intended to help steer business to Baltimore-based companies to spur economic growth.

•Should more outdoor cafes be authorized at the Inner Harbor's West Shore Park and Rash Field?

•Should city agencies be audited every two years? A previous charter amendment approved in 2012 requires the city to conduct both financial and performance audits of 13 key agencies every four years, although few have been completed so far.

•Should the city amend the charter to create an affordable-housing trust fund to build and maintain homes that extremely low-income residents can afford? Establishing the fund would be the first step; advocates still must persuade city officials to put money in it.

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