Mayor of the City of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh held her first State of the City address at City Hall. (Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh used her first 'State of the City' speech Thursday to set a direction for her new administration: She plans to fight an "unacceptable" crime rate by focusing on social services, not spending more money on police.
"Even if we were to add 1,000 new police officers to our streets to patrol daily, that would not solve our crime problem," Pugh said. "Crime is symptomatic of the many problems facing our city today —unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, hopelessness and homelessness."
The Democratic mayor said she plans to focus on education, job training and addiction services and, as a result, crime will fall as jobs and opportunities increase. "If we don't employ our youth, the drug dealers will," she said.
Pugh said services such as employment vans and expanding summer jobs for youths can be paid for, in part, by "right-sizing" the Police Department. The mayor made clear she plans to shrink the department's budget, in part by reducing overtime. She did not offer other specifics.
The speech won praise from several members of the City Council, but Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he wanted to hear more immediate plans to address crime.
"We have to get a handle on the crime now," Scott said. "We heard a lot about five years from now — which is great — but I also want to hear about what we are going to do right now, right now today."
Scott said he agrees that crime needs to be addressed with resources from a variety of city agencies, including those that strengthen families and train the unemployed.
The Pugh administration has created four small "transformation zones" — one each in East, West, Northwest and Southwest Baltimore, where crime is high — to be flooded with city services, including health care and housing code enforcement.
As they do this, administration officials say, they plan to shrink the Baltimore Police Department's more than $450 million budget over a number of years to devote more money toward other services. They hope at the same time to shift more officers to patrol.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he was encouraged by the mayor's speech.
"Catherine Pugh speaks with great hope and optimism, but she also had a game plan," Davis said. "I think this city will be a different place in 10 years and Catherine Pugh with her ideas will accelerate that."
He said recent overtime costs — which reached $40 million last year — were driven by the civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that surrounded the trials of six police officers accused of harming or killing him.
The department also has lost hundreds of officers, and a new union-negotiated shift schedule has prevented the administration from getting enough officers on the street, he said.
Davis welcomed the plan to direct more city resources to some of the most violent and poorest parts of Baltimore. He said such a strategy helped drive down crime at his old job in Prince George's County.
The mayor opened her speech by addressing the $130 million funding gap facing Baltimore City schools. Officials say the shortfall threatens the jobs of hundreds of teachers and could increase class sizes. Pugh, along with General Assembly allies, has proposed a $180 million, three-year funding plan that would fix about half the problem. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not committed to providing more state aid.
"By temporarily reducing our rainy day fund allocation, requiring stricter guidelines for police and other agency overtime ... we can provide funding to address the school system's structural deficit," Pugh said. She also suggested tapping money from the city's new youth fund.
But she called on school officials to come up with a plan to increase student enrollment — which would increase state funding — and decrease expenses to help further shrink the gap.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who championed the $12 million "Youth Fund" for children and teen activities, said a task force his office created to oversee the funds does not support spending that money on the school system.
"The task force is not in favor of that," he said. "We're going to look through the budget to find money to fill the gap."
Scott said he is opposed to any move by the administration to use money from the children and youth fund to offset cuts to the school system's budget.
"The youth fund is supposed to be over and above," Scott said. "To me, that's a nonstarter. We can look at other sources of funding. For example, police overtime or the Charm City Circulator. We can't continue to operate a free bus if children don't have teachers. No way am I going to support raiding the children and youth fund."
Even so, Young praised the mayor's plans. The council president said he and Pugh sat in his office and prayed before the speech.
"This mayor is serious about this business," Young said. "She touched on just about every area we need to focus on. We need to go and reach those folks who have lost hope, who have lost faith in the system."
During the speech, Pugh said she plans to roll out a fleet of seven mobile employment vehicles to go into the city's poorest neighborhoods with lists of job openings and training programs, and then recruit residents to apply. She said Thursday she has obtained outside funding for three of the units, which cost $350,000 each.
She said she plans to install 6,000 new street lights to brighten dark neighborhoods, starting with the Penn North area and along Charles Street.
And she said she intends to create a new type of homeless shelter for 50 to 100 people in Baltimore that would include individual rooms with showers. She said staff would provide meals and also services for mental health, addiction treatment and employment.
Pugh also said she is focused on making sure residents of all races and income levels benefit from opportunities in Baltimore. She said she is going through every city contract and pressing agencies to "include people of color and minority classes" among those considered for the work. And she said she wants to see tax breaks and city financing plans for the Old Town Mall area as well as parts of East and West Baltimore.
City Councilman Robert Stokes said he supports the mayor's vision for the direction of the city.
"We are not going to arrest our way out of the crime that we have," he said. "We have to provide opportunities for our young people. A lot of people in our communities haven't had the opportunity to work."
Councilman Zeke Cohen, chairman of the Education and Youth Committee, said Pugh's decision to open her speech with her plans for Baltimore's children was symbolically meaningful to him.
"That is also my top priority," Cohen said. "I was incredibly pleased that is where she started, and her commitment seemed very solid."
He said looking at police overtime spending makes good sense, not only to help fund the schools, but to provide accountability to taxpayers.
"The citizens of Baltimore need good accounting practices within our Police Department," Cohen said. "As a councilman and former educator, I don't get any overtime. Having clear fiscal guidelines for our police is so incredibly important."
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