Baltimore residents tuned in virtually and turned out in person Wednesday night for the first of two 2022 Taxpayers’ Night forums.
The hybrid event was relatively calm compared with public testimony heard during the previous budget cycle, but the subject of resident requests and protests remained the same: Spending for the Baltimore Police Department should not increase. Rather, 30 residents and activists urged the Board of Estimates to cut $100 million from the police department’s allocated funds and use those dollars to enhance community organizations that specialize in housing, health care, substance use treatment and other programs.
The $4 billion budget proposal released earlier this month would increase the police department’s budget by $5 million to a total of $560.4 million for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Police stand to receive the second-largest portion of city funds, following the Department of Public Works’ $620.9 million budget.
It’s the second year Mayor Brandon Scott has proposed an increase for police spending despite passionate public outcry at Taxpayers’ Night forums last year over the police department’s $28 million funding boost.
“The proposed city budget allocates $560 million for the Baltimore City Police Department, a $32 million increase from the money allocated within [fiscal year 2021] after Mayor Scott ran on decreasing the police budget in order to increase funding on housing, recreations and parks, summer employment, city schools and necessary infrastructure,” said Caitlin Goldblatt, a Baltimore resident who spoke by Zoom.
Scott campaigned on a promise to reform police spending and led the charge as City Council president in 2020 to cut $22.4 million from then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget — most of it from the police department.
The increase for the current fiscal year, Scott’s first budget, did not fund new programs; it was used to pay for the rising cost of employee health insurance and police pensions. The nearly 1% increase in police funding for the 2023 fiscal budget also would be spent on health benefits, workers’ compensation and inflation. And $2.2 million is allocated to pay for a new contract negotiated between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, which raises the starting salary for new recruits to $60,000.
The department also would eliminate 30 vacant sworn officer positions and instead hire 35 civilian investigators who would assist detectives with research and other investigatory tasks to fill gaps caused by officer vacancies. About 2,793 people are employed by the police department, including 519 civilian workers.
Goldblatt said the prior night’s chaotic events — when an out-of-town housing lobbyist marched a large group of supporters around City Hall in a demonstration that turned a City Council meeting unruly — shows why taxpayer dollars should support employees who work in the community where they live, unlike some police officers who reside outside Baltimore and even Maryland, she said.
“The city’s over-investment in policing not only does not make Baltimore City safer, but it puts certain members of city government in a position where they think relying on out-of-state individuals and interests will make up for the major funding gaps created by investing most of the city’s budget into increasingly militarized policing, rather than schools, housing and basic community infrastructure for those who actually live here,” Goldblatt said.
Several participants asked members of the Board of Estimates — which consists of Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby, Comptroller Bill Henry, City Solicitor Jim Shea and Director of Public Works Jason Mitchell — to seriously address the constant issue of sewage that overflows during inclement weather and rushes into residents’ basements, causing significant damage.
Members of Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that is suing the city for issues at the troublesome Back River Wastewater Treatment plant in Dundalk, pressed the board to invest in water and sewage infrastructure.
The board proposed using $2.5 million to fund a cleanup program called “Sewage Onsite Support (SOS)” that allows residents to call 311 and receive professional cleaning, disinfection and disposal services for such overflows.
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Baltimore public schools would see a $65 million increase in their $340 million budget because of statewide legislation called the Kirwan Blueprint. Spending on teacher pay, early education and career readiness programs mandated by Kirwan will continue to grow annually, jumping to $77.2 million by fiscal year 2024 and to a projected $155.4 million by 2030.
After two years of virtual meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday’s forum took place in a hybrid format with both in-person speakers and online testimony. At least one speaker said they were recovering from COVID-19 and appreciated the opportunity to testify from home. Participants spoke to the board face-to-face, and several council members were in attendance, as was Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.
After the tense forums held last year that ultimately did not curtail police spending, residents appeared frustrated to be repeating their same demands. Community organizations in attendance included Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs, Organizing Black, Communities United, Jews United for Justice and Blue Water Baltimore.
“Here we are another year, another Taxpayers’ Night where residents come out in the majority asking for investments in their communities,” said Ralikh Hayes, deputy director of Organizing Black. “What is necessary is for us to be at the table, for us to have the money divested from police and actually invested in us. I won’t belabor the point because you’ve heard most people tonight, but it is imperative that you work with us or get out of our way. It is imperative that we do what’s necessary for our city and invest in the people.”
The budget is still in its preliminary stages, and there is a second forum for residents to share their opinions on the proposed funds with the City Council. The next Taxpayers’ Night is scheduled for May 26. Until then, the Bureau of Budget and Management Research will recommend amendments and adjustments to the Board of Estimates. The budget then goes to the council, which will hold public hearings with city agencies on their proposed budgets.
Until a charter amendment takes effect in July 2022, City Council members can only cut funds in the budget; they cannot reallocate money.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.