Mayor's budget adds $2 million for youth plans

The Baltimore Sun

Despite falling revenue and a budget that looks bleaker by the day, Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration announced yesterday it had identified more than $2 million in additional money for youth programs.

By far the largest infusion of new money, $1.5 million, would be directed to community schools, which place social services and other programs inside city school buildings. And $250,000 would help pay to assign senior volunteers to schools.

The announcement of additional city funding for youth programs came a day after the administration announced it would forgo a 2-cent property tax cut in its $2.94 billion budget - a $5.4 million savings for the city - but officials said the two decisions were not related.

"This is a great first move by putting more money for opportunity in our base budget," said Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Safe & Sound Campaign, a nonprofit that has lobbied City Hall for the funding.

New money for the programs came as the Board of Estimates yesterday unanimously approved the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 - a largely procedural step that initiates a months-long debate over the spending plan in the City Council.

In presenting the revised budget, city officials continued to sound alarms that the cooling economy has crunched the city's ability to maintain services. Finance officials said the city is wrestling with an imbalance in projected revenues and expenditures that may be as large as $35 million.

In an effort to save money, the board approved Dixon's decision to abandon a long-standing plan to reduce the property tax rate by 2 cents annually. The annual cuts started in 2005 under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Asked whether the increased spending on youth programs would have been possible without forgoing the tax break Dixon said no. But administration officials said money saved from the tax cut is primarily needed to offset falling revenue.

"It wasn't necessarily a trade-off," Dixon said. "It's really looking at where we need to set our priorities."

Dixon had set aside $12 million for youth programs in her budget proposal, but advocates said the city would need to come up with an additional $5 million to match what was spent last year.

Yesterday, the administration earmarked $1.5 million for the community schools and $250,000 for Experience Corps, which places senior citizens in city schools as mentors. An additional $700,000 was identified for summer job programs.

"The money is extremely important because right now Baltimore City is being watched nationally," said Sheila Drummond, director of Baltimore Community School Connections, a nonprofit that helps coordinate the city's community schools. "It's crucial."

Drummond said there are 43 community schools sites in the city.

Experience Corps has 373 senior volunteers working in 20 schools, said Sylvia McGill, the director of public education programs at Experience Corps and the Greater Homewood Community Association. The $250,000 would keep the group's funding consistent with this year.

"The senior adults who volunteer in the schools provide a commitment for mentoring and tutoring kids and provide a mature presence in the schools," McGill said.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has become a spokeswoman for the youth advocates, said it is important to spend money on students now rather than letting them become part of the criminal justice system at even greater expense later.

"The mayor has shown fiscal acumen here in keeping us whole so we could put a budget together that reflects the new realities," Clarke said. "But one of the new realities is that now, more than ever, our children need to be positively engaged."

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