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Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh boosts police spending in proposed budget

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh released her $2.8 billion budget for the coming year on Wednesday. It proposes to expand the police department with 100 new officer positions and increase funding for the anti-violence Safe Streets program.

The spending plan comes after three straight years in which the city has suffered from more than 300 killings, though crime has been trending down this year.

“There was a particular focus this year on public safety, given the mayor’s emphasis on violence reduction,” said Baltimore’s budget director, Bob Cenname.

The spending plan includes a 2 percent raise for all city employees and a small tax cut for city homeowners. It counts on tripling revenue from speed and red light cameras — from $8 million to $24 million — as the Department of Transportation adds dozens more of the devices around Baltimore.

The budget earmarks $500,000 to help pay for free community college for Baltimore public school graduates. And it proposes closing two fire companies and replacing them with ambulances, a move Cenname said would better reflect the services Baltimore residents need during the surging crisis of drug overdoses. Nearly 700 people died in 2016 from overdoses in Baltimore, and the fatalities continue to grow.

But in an interview Wednesday afternoon, Pugh said she was dropping the fire department proposal.

“We’re not going to do that,” the Democratic mayor said. “That was preliminary discussion. I’m not on board with that.”

Her budget proposal, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, goes now to the City Council for approval. The council can cut from the mayor’s budget but cannot increase spending.

Under Pugh’s plan, the Police Department budget is set to grow 2.8 percent — from $497 million this year to $511 million. The department is authorized to add about 130 total positions for the agency, including crime lab employees.

Pugh noted that she inherited a police department that had shrunk by hundreds of officers when she took office in late 2016.

“We’ve got to make sure we have the positions in the police department to adequately police our city,” she said of the 100 new officer positions.

The increase in jobs will bring the number of sworn officer positions on the force to 2,661.

Pugh also is continuing to invest in the types of social outreach programs that she has credited with the violence reduction so far this year.

Her budget calls for spending $3.6 million to expand the anti-violence Safe Streets program from four sites to 10 and $1 million to help fund an intervention program for boys and young men called Roca. It also provides $1.6 million in extra services in seven Violence Reduction Zones throughout the city.

The budget earmarks $20 million for police overtime next year even though the agency is on pace to spend about $50 million in the current fiscal year. So far, the department has spent more than $36 million on overtime — well over the $16 million budgeted for the year that ends June 30.

Baltimore Finance Director Henry Raymond said he was expecting the police department to live within its means next year.

“Live within the appropriation,” Raymond said.

Pugh agreed.

“Let me be clear: An increase in the Police Department’s budget does not mean they get a blank check,” she said.

Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa will work to reduce overtime spending by implementing a more efficient patrol schedule and a new technology for signing into work, the mayor said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, questioned whether the police department needed funding for 100 new officers. Scott pointed to data showing that the department was only able to hire a small number of new officers last year and said the money could be better spent on addressing root causes of crime.

“If we are truly going to attack violence as a disease and from a public health standpoint, we have to start making those investments,” he said. “At some point in the city we’re going to have to have that switch that we cannot expect the police department to save us.”

Scott said he was pleased the budget includes funding for Safe Streets.

The budget does not provide as large an increase for schools as it does police. Money contributed to the the school system’s budget for operations will decrease by about $3 million. But the mayor increased capital funding by $2 million to help schools repair their heating systems.

Overall the city budget provides $275 million for the city school system’s total $1.3 billion budget — which is largely funded by the state — and $492 million of the police department’s total $511 million spending plan.

Pugh said the state is responsible for funding most of the city schools budget, so it makes sense for her to focus funding on the police department.

“The police budget is half the size of the schools budget,” she said.

Pugh’s spending plan continues to fund a small, phased-in tax credit for Baltimore homeowners that began under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Though the city’s overall property tax rate of $2.248 per $100 of assessed value remains twice that of surrounding counties, the modest tax break means the average owner-occupied home will pay $2.07 per $100 of assessed value. The tax break is designed to continue through 2020, when the discount for owner-occupied homes would grow to 20 cents.

The budget does warn of some risks to the city’s financial position: It highlights the possibility of another recession and the cost of lawsuit payouts stemming from misconduct by Baltimore officers in the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force unit.

And it reserves $24 million in case the city loses a lawsuit filed by the police and fire unions over cuts to their pension benefits. If the unions ultimately prevail, the city could owe as much as $67 million in retroactive payments to retirees.

Pugh’s budget comes as Baltimore suffered another loss in population last year. The U.S. Census reported that more than 5,300 people left the city, continuing a downward trend that accelerated after the 2015 unrest and ensuing spike in crime.

Baltimore’s population stood at 611,648 as of July 1, 2017, according to new Census Bureau estimates.

Cenname said the population loss has not hurt the budget, in part because wealthier residents who pay more in taxes have moved into the city.

“We lost population, but our income tax base has gotten stronger,” he said. “We might be adding households that are smaller in size but higher in income.”

Revenue coming into Baltimore’s government from property taxes is expected to increase next year to $938.6 million from $902 million this year.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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