City Council votes to create $30 million 'youth fund' in Baltimore

"We either invest in our youth now or we pay later," Baltimore City Council president says.

Over the objections of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city Finance Department, the Baltimore City Council voted Tuesday to approve a charter amendment that would lock city government into spending millions more annually on programs that benefit children and teens.

The legislation sponsored by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young would direct 3 percent of the city's discretionary spending to youth initiatives. The council's budget analysts say it would produce about $30 million more annually for programs such as privately run recreation centers and fitness activities.

"We either invest in our youth now or we pay later," Young said. "If you look at the costs of incarceration, what I'm asking for isn't very much. It's just the right thing to do."

Rawlings-Blake is considering a veto. Her finance director estimates that the legislation would produce just $11 million more for youth programs. But even then, Finance Director Henry J. Raymond wrote to the council, dedicating revenue for "a specific purpose, no matter how worthwhile it may be, begins to undermine sound financial management, puts core services at risk, and is not the best way to achieve the City Council's goals.

"Baltimore has a long and proud history of good fiscal stewardship," Raymond warned. "It is one of the reasons why our city has never gone into default, receivership or bankruptcy."

Council members voted 14-0 to approve the legislation. They would need only 12 votes to override a mayoral veto. Then it would go to city voters in November.

The legislation follows the death last April of Freddie Gray, and the protests and riots that brought national attention to some of Baltimore's most vexing problems, including a lack of education, joblessness and mass incarceration.

"This is something I've been planning for years," Young said. "The opportunity presented itself.

"It's about time we either put up or shut up. I would like to do at least one bill signing with the mayor in five years — because I haven't had one."

The Rawlings-Blake administration says the city will spend $372 million on services for children and youths this year, 4 percent more than was spent last year. Such spending makes up 15 percent of the current operating budget.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit said, "The mayor has a consistent record of supporting our youth and finding creative ways to provide resources.

"But she remains opposed to the idea of tying up a percentage of our budget in perpetuity to any special interest, no matter how worthy the goal," he said. "It is a fiscally irresponsible way to do budgeting."

Libit said city officials still need to "review the legislation to determine whether it's even legally sufficient." Then, he said, Rawlings-Blake will decide whether to veto the bill.

If the mayor vetoes the legislation, Young said, he is prepared to mount the council's first veto override in more than three decades. The last came in 1982, when a council that included Mary Pat Clarke, George W. Della and Frank X. Gallagher voted to override Mayor William Donald Schaefer's veto of a bill to give increased pension benefits to Baltimore's firefighters and police officers.

"If the mayor vetoes it, we will override the veto," Young said. "I have the votes to override."

If the measure is approved by voters in November, Young said, the city will set up a board to receive and review grant applications.

"There will be strict standards in place," he said.

Groups eligible to receive the funding reacted positively to the council vote.

"It's what we need," said Munir Bahar, co-founder of the 300 Men March, an anti-violence group that works with teens.

"We're trying to raise money for youth programming," Bahar said. "I don't think the money should come solely from government, but I don't think enough people have stepped up. We have a big issue with non-engagement of young black teens. Prioritizing that group is important."

Ericka L. Alston, spokeswoman for the Penn-North Community Resource Center, said she backs Young's plan "100 percent." Her group opened a Kids Safe Zone last year in a vacant laundromat in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested last April.

"We're still not funded," Alston said. "Even though it looks like everyone is supporting us, it's not financial support. It's a wonderful idea that the money would be there."

Also Tuesday, the council gave preliminary approval to a $17.5 million tax-increment-financing deal for the real estate firm developing the University of Maryland Baltimore BioPark.

The subsidy for the roughly $110 million project is designed to help BioPark developer Wexford Science & Technology lure a branch of the Cambridge Innovation Center to Baltimore. The Massachusetts-based firm provides shared working space to startups.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the council's economic development committee, said he agreed to move the subsidy forward Tuesday only after the developer and surrounding communities signed a community benefits agreement.

The agreement establishes a community fund of more than $1 million that would grow each year and help address parking problems, the development of Hollins Market and job creation, among other community concerns. Stokes said the fund would ultimately grow to about $4 million.

"This is the best TIF ever, frankly," Stokes said.

Young also praised the negotiations on the bill.

"Anybody who is asking for TIF money is going to have to give something to the community," he said.

The council approved $533,000 to hire additional crime scene analysts to bolster the Police Department's forensics lab and to give the city's civilian review board more staffing to investigate complaints of police misconduct.

The crime lab — which is expected to receive 15,000 requests this year to investigate homicides, burglaries and other crimes — would use $347,000 to buy new equipment and add eight technicians to a team of 28. It would also bring on two more lab supervisors, for a total of five.

Another $186,000 would be spent to give the civilian review board a mediator, a community liaison and an additional investigator.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
28°