Can a strong mayor resist a children and youth investment fund?

Can a strong mayor resist a children and youth investment fund?
President of the Baltimore City Council Bernard C. "Jack" Young. (Courtesy/CNN)

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young can't believe anyone would oppose him. "Anybody that's against doing something for our kids, I question their credibility," he says.

Two weeks ago Young introduced a resolution that, if the council passes it in the coming weeks, could become a ballot initiative to amend the city's charter in next fall's election. The proposal would earmark 3 percent of the city's tax revenue, from now on, for additional youth development programs. It could also spark a political fight and, perhaps, chip away ever so slightly at a system of government that, despite its flaws and increasing rarity, Baltimoreans take for granted: the strong mayor.


"Every year we have a big fight and people come down here" to city hall to try to get money for their programs, Young says. If the charter is amended as Young's plan envisions, he says, "all that will stop."

Young's proposal would add $31 million in spending for recreation centers, tutoring programs, basketball leagues, literacy enhancement, and anything else that could be tied to the well-being of Baltimore children. It would put Baltimore in league with other cities whose voters have approved similar set-asides—San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Miami, Florida. But it would also cut into the mayor's budgetary prerogatives in a city with a very strong-mayor system.

Twenty of the 30 most populous American cities have mayor-council governments, and most of them are "strong mayors," with the balance of power skewed toward the executive branch. But even most strong mayors do not have the budget-setting power Baltimore's mayor enjoys, with a charter-granted responsibility to make a budget that the City Council can only cut, not add to. The mayor also controls the Board of Estimates, which disburses the money on a weekly basis. That leaves the City Council with limited say in how tax money is allocated.

But this mayor, at this time, is not so strong. Having announced that she will not run for re-election to a second full term, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she wants to concentrate her remaining months on policy matters. That means she is less likely to have the clout it would take to derail Young's proposal. A spokesperson reportedly was dismissive, saying Young should instead arrange for the council to vote on the mayor's year-old proposal to sell four city parking garages to raise money for kids.

The garage sale might raise $40 to $60 million, the Baltimore Business Journal reported, citing the administration's estimates. Skeptical of the plan to sell revenue-generating assets for a one-time cash infusion, Young has held up the measure.

"I think Jack has a great proposal on the table that would do good things for kids," says Councilman Bill Henry (4th District). "And I think the mayor has a good proposal on the table in terms of selling some parking garages and putting that money toward youth programs. I think there is a significant opportunity for a win-win."

Henry, like Young, has decried the city's budget priorities. Police and fire budgets have increased steadily for a generation, while recreation centers and other youth-oriented funding has stagnated.

"The general fund is a little over a billion dollars," Henry says. "We're spending $450 million of it on the police department—not on public safety—on the police department. Throw in another $200 million on the Fire Department [to get the basic public safety budget], so we already have two-thirds of the general fund set aside for fire and police." So saying that tying 3 percent up for youth development ties a mayor's hands—and it does, technically—but if we expect to spend less than that, "that kind of is our problem."

Neither Henry nor Young could say with precision just how much the city spends now on youth programs. There are many programs in several agency budgets, Young says.

Henry estimates the proposed $31 million would just about double the current expenditures: "And what Jack is proposing is a commitment to it."

The money would run not through the mayor's office but through a newly created board of community representatives, elected officials, "and hopefully some CEOs," Young says. "My intention is that every community that has a viable 501(c)3 that is providing services to our children will be eligible to apply."

The board would vet the nonprofits and hold them accountable for the spending, Young says, adding that he would not want a seat on the board.

The council has clashed with the mayor over basic administrative competence. Until recently, some city agencies had not been audited for decades, and mandated audits have been delayed. Last week Councilman Eric T. Costello (11th District) announced hearings on the delayed audits. In 2014 an audit of the Department of Recreation and Parks found system-wide weaknesses in accounting for cash and hours worked by employees, which parks officials vowed to correct.

Also recently, Councilman Brandon M. Scott (2nd District) proposed a "One Card" system for city youth. Modeled after a program already in place in Washington, D.C. and other cities, the program would issue every school student a single card that they could use to enter the school, library, recreation centers, maybe even buses and light rail. "It allows the possibility for us to have better data for how our resources are spent," Scott says. "We can follow where the young people are going."


Scott says Oakland's municipal ID "is how youth get paid for their summer jobs" so they don't have to use check-cashing stores.

Scott says his proposal fits well with Young's: "I think it goes hand in hand because if we're going to be allocating these extra resources to rec and parks we have to hold them accountable."

Jonathon Rondeau, president and CEO of the Family League of Baltimore, says Young's proposal will at least promote "a citywide conversation about what are the city's priorities." If it passes, it will allow the city "to begin to scale" after-school and summer learning programs for younger kids and youth apprenticeships and workforce training for older kids, he says.

Young often says that investment in youth programs will cut crime and save money spent on things like police overtime. "We spend $38 million on police overtime," he says. "If we can direct that to our youths, then I'm sure the police can enjoy time with their families." It is an article of faith among youth-program proponents that they help prevent delinquency, though it is unclear how much this is true. Oakland, for example, still has high youth crime nearly 20 years after instituting a youth program budget set-aside.

Questions about the crime-reduction efficacy of youth programs often overlook their scale, Rondeau says.

"There are about 100,000 school-age kids in the city, but there are only about 25,000 summer slots for kids," Rondeau says. "So where are those other 75,000 kids?"


Young has in the past tried to steer more money to youth programs. In 2012, for instance, he found $17 million in cuts to other parts of the budget, and begged Rawlings-Blake to consider them instead of cutting things like fire houses and rec centers.*

Back then, as now, a majority of councilmembers signed on to Young's proposal (all have sponsored the latest bill). But behind the scenes the mayor and her allies peeled off those votes, so in the end, Young's bill failed.

"It'll work this time," Young vows. "I'll make sure of it."

*An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the hearing on the youth fund: the hearing has not yet been set. The piece also misstated the amount of money Young attempted to restore to recreation, fire houses, and other priorities in the mayor's 2012 budget. It was $17 million, not $48 million. City Paper regrets the errors.