Baltimore City Council members say budget must include Safe Streets funding

Several Baltimore City Council members said Friday they will not support a budget for next year that does not include funding for the Safe Streets violence prevention program.

Safe Streets, credited with curbing violence through mediation at offices in four city neighborhoods, could close if the city does come up with $1.5 million, said Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

He called an emergency hearing Friday at City Hall to discuss Safe Streets because Mayor Catherine Pugh's $2.8 billion budget proposal — released in March — does not include funding for the program.

"We shouldn't be having this discussion with the amount of violence we're experiencing," Scott said.

About 130 people have been killed this year in the city, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the nation.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said Young "fully supports Safe Streets."

Davis said Young has had conversations with the mayor, who also expressed support.

"It's a matter of working out the money. The administration is supportive of the program," Davis said. "The mayor has told [Young] she is working to figure out a way to keep that important program going. I think it is very likely to find funding."

Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

At Friday's hearing, council members questioned Deputy Health Commissioner Olivia Farrow and Assistant Commissioner Greg Sileo about the program, including whether funding could be used to open a new Safe Streets location. Sigleo said opening a fifth site would raise the program's cost to $2 million.

Farrow said most funding for the program came from U.S. Department of Justice grants, which have since dried up.

Health department spokeswoman Michelle Mendes would not provide additional details about the funding, and referred questions to the mayor's office.

Safe Streets has offices in four locations — Cherry Hill, McElderry Park, Park Heights and Sandtown-Winchester. Outreach workers, who often were previously convicted of crimes and served prison time, are hired to intervene in disputes within their communities.

James Timpson, the former director of the Park Heights location and now an outreach liaison for the program, said it has led to a 27 percent reduction in violence in the community.

Safe Streets is "changing the way people think about violence. It's not a normal way to solve a conflict," he told council members at the hearing.

According to the Health Department's website, the area served by the Safe Streets office in Sandtown-Winchester has gone 213 days without a fatal shooting. McElderry Park in East Baltimore has gone 148 days, and Cherry Hill has gone 119 days.

City Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, vice chairman of the council's budget committee, expressed support for the program and said he would like to see additional sites, including one in his district's Mondawmin neighborhood. There have been two homicides and four nonfatal shootings in the neighborhood this year, according to city data.

A Safe Streets location in Mondawmin closed in 2013 after two outreach workers were arrested within two weeks.

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake briefly froze funding for two Safe Streets sites in 2010 and ordered an investigation after federal authorities said the East Baltimore branch had ties to the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

In 2015, the East Baltimore office again caused concern when police officers found seven guns and drugs stashed there. Its operations were briefly suspended.

Councilwoman Shannon Sneed asked about salaries of Safe Streets employees, who officials said make about $30,000.

"You guys are paid nothing," Sneed said.

She asked Timpson what would happen if the program ended. Timpson said violence would get "so much further out of control."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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