Baltimore's leading business group is urging the City Council not to cut the Police Department budget, arguing that reducing spending during a crime spike would put the public at risk.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said in a letter to the council that public safety is elected officials' first responsibility.
"Law enforcement efforts and public safety are at a crisis point in Baltimore City," Fry wrote. "Now is not the time to risk the health and welfare of our citizens who all too frequently succumb to a small contingent of citizens wreaking havoc in Baltimore's neighborhoods."
Many city politicians have called for increasing spending on education and other services for children and teenagers. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has said he was looking to cut $13 million — most of it from the police budget — to achieve that purpose.
The city school system plans to lay off up to 300 employees — including teachers — to help close a $130 million budget shortfall. School officials told council members this month that even with more money, it's too late to avert layoffs this summer.
Young and others also want more spending on community and youth programs, which count on city funding to support thousands of Baltimore children and adults.
Mayor Catherine Pugh's proposed budget provides record funding of $497 million for the Police Department, but does not increase spending enough to allow the department to continue providing all of its current services. It would cut back the department's Foxtrot helicopter and criminal investigation units.
Fry wrote that even that level of funding would likely "severely hamper law enforcement strategies and services at a time when we need renewed efforts."
Fry said the GBC shared the view "that the city should be investing more in our city's children than in law enforcement" but did not explain how officials should reach that goal while preserving spending on police.
"There is no dispute that the development of our youth is an important function of city government and we must invest in comprehensive, long-term strategies to increase funding for youth programs," Fry wrote.
Councilman Eric T. Costello, chairman of the budget committee, said Tuesday there might be a way: an expected $13 million surplus in the 2017 budget could be used to fund schools and youth programs without cutting the police budget.
"I think there's a solution," Costello said.
The council does not have the power to reassign money in the budget, so the mayor's office would have to agree to spend the surplus.
A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for Young said relying on the surplus made sense, but would not rule out cutting the police budget.
"The guiding principle for us had always been to restore funding to those critical programs," spokesman Lester Davis said. "That's where the focus was."
Through a spokesman, Fry said that using the surplus appeared to be a better idea than making cuts to the police department.