As Baltimore mayor asks state to fund anti-crime efforts, some delegates disagree over spending on new Roca program

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is asking Gov. Larry Hogan for $10 million to help bring a new anti-crime program to Baltimore, but some in the city’s House delegation questioned Friday whether that money should be going to locally organized efforts instead.

The Roca program, which has operated for 30 years in the Boston area, is a key piece of Pugh’s plans to stem a surge of violence over the past three years. It targets young men with histories of arrests and drug use, connecting them to education and employment opportunities.

Pugh raised $6 million from city foundations to get Roca started in Baltimore, but she is asking the state for help to fill an expected $17 million four-year budget for the program.

At a meeting of the city’s delegates Friday morning, lawmakers debated whether that money would be better spent on efforts that have already sprouted in Baltimore neighborhoods but aren’t receiving the same sort of support.

Del. Bilal Ali raised examples such as UMAR Boxing, which operates an after-school program for at-risk youth in Druid Heights, and KEYS Development, which offers mental health and youth services.

Del. Cheryl Glenn asked about the Rose Street Community Center, which offers work opportunities for city residents, and other delegates asked about the Safe Streets program, which Pugh has said she plans to expand from four sites around the city to 10.

Ali said he was leery of bringing in outsiders to solve the city’s problems. While Roca founder Molly Baldwin is a Baltimore native, he said, “she’s no home-grown Baltimorean.”

“Baltimore is a lot different from Boston,” Ali told The Baltimore Sun. “My concern is that we do have a lot of programs right here in Baltimore that are, to my understanding, not adequately funded and could really benefit from those additional resources.”

Karen Stokes, the Pugh administration’s director of government relations, stressed that funding Roca would not come at the expense of other programs. She said community programs like the ones delegates mentioned would also be able to seek funding from the $12 million fund City Council President Jack Young is launching to aid city youths.

“This is not an either-or proposition,” Stokes said. “The mayor is taking a 64,000-foot view to reduce violence. Anything you bring to our attention, we will look at.”

But delegates expressed concern that Pugh had not discussed the Roca program and her larger crime-fighting strategy with them before bringing it to Hogan.

“It would have been great for the mayor’s office to talk to us about the plan before Roca was in place,” Del. Nick Mosby said.

It’s unclear whether the state will provide the funding Pugh is requesting for Roca and the rest of her crime-fighting strategy. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor, said Hogan “is aware of the program and its potential value.” The governor must propose his budget to the General Assembly by Wednesday.

Stokes said Pugh plans to brief the city’s representatives in Annapolis in the next week.

Del. Keith Haynes, vice chairman of the city’s House delegation, said delegates aren’t opposed to the Roca program. They just want to advocate for city activists who don’t necessarily have the same formal nonprofit infrastructure as groups like Roca but are nonetheless effective at engaging youths and preventing violence.

“I support the program,” Haynes said of Roca. “But at the same time, we want to make sure it’s not to the exclusion of any other program."

Ali said his concern is about a history in which “the nonprofit industrial complex has always gobbled up all the money that was available.” While he said he is “all for” Young’s youth fund helping grass-roots city programs, he thinks more credence should be given to those efforts than has been the case in the past.

“I believe that the people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Ali said. “You can’t always replicate best practices from one locality to another.”

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