For the first time in a generation, the Baltimore City Council overturned a mayoral veto Monday, asking voters to decide in November if the city should create a special account to fund enrichment programs for children and teenagers.
The last time the council rejected a mayoral veto was 1982 — when Cal Ripken Jr. was a rookie and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was atop the pop music world — after Mayor William Donald Schaefer tried to block more generous pension benefits for police officers and firefighters.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said investing more money in young people "is the right thing to do."
"We could always find the money for police overtime," said Young, who introduced the measure. "This would help have kids in some positive programs to keep them from having to hire police for overtime in the first place. I wanted the citizens to decide, not me or the mayor."
Young's legislation authorizes an amendment to the city charter requiring 3 percent of the city's discretionary spending to be earmarked for youth programs. If the charter amendment is approved by voters, Young projects it would generate about $30 million a year for programs for children and teens.
Young expects to draft legislation to create a panel to recommend how to spend the money. The administration has estimated the amount would be closer to $11 million, depending on how discretionary spending is defined.
The council voted 15-0 to override the veto Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued this month. Political observers attributed the vote to Rawlings-Blake's decision not to seek re-election.
"She is a lame-duck mayor, and as a lame-duck mayor, there is no way she can punish the City Council for the override," said Donald F. Norris, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's School of Public Policy.
"If not, she would be able to say, 'Here's what I can do for you,' a little horse trading to maintain the veto, but she doesn't have the power any more."
Rawlings-Blake says, like Schaefer in 1982, her concern about the charter amendment has been about the city's fiscal health.
She was disappointed by the override, said mayoral spokesman Howard Libit.
"This has never been a question of the value of investing in programming for our youth," Libit said in a statement. "That is an area where the mayor has consistently increased city spending. This is a question of fiscal responsibility and whether this City Council wants to tie the hands of future councils and mayors to feel-good, election-year spending promises."
Rawlings-Blake wrote in her veto letter, issued Feb. 8, that her administration was left to reckon with the long-term consequence of the 1982 override. The Great Recession "crystallized Mayor Schaefer's prediction" when rising pension costs squeezed city services, and an attempt to rein in the benefits has left the city embroiled in federal litigation, she wrote.
The city will spend $372 million on services for youths this year, which Rawlings-Blake notes is 4 percent more than last year.
She has warned the council that the city is facing a $75 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Tying the hands of a future mayor with mandated spending could hurt city families by forcing more severe cuts to jobs and services.
Councilwoman Helen Holton, chairwoman of the council's budget committee, said allowing voters to approve or reject the youth fund gives the power to taxpayers — where it belongs.
"This is an opportunity for us to put this in the hands of the voters," Holton said. "It gives the people the opportunity to say what their preference and priority is."
If the charter amendment is approved by voters, the council will have to pass legislation to create a process for accepting applications for the money, reviewing the proposals and awarding grants.
Young said he wants a panel of young people to decide how a portion of the money is spent. Another committee, made up of representatives from nonprofits and other groups, would allocate most of the grants.
Young said he is not concerned that the council's decision will affect his ability to have legislation approved by the mayor during Rawlings-Blake's remaining months in office. In recent years, Young said, he has had to work aggressively to get the administration's support for legislation, and he plans to continue doing so.
He introduced another measure Monday to decrease property taxes for low-income seniors who have owned their homes for at least 10 years.
To qualify for the tax credit, homeowners would have to be at least 62 years old and have an annual income lower than $40,000. The break available would depend on income, the value of the home and other credits the taxpayer receives.
Young said the proposal is intended to help stabilize communities by helping seniors avoid foreclosure, keeping more in their homes. An estimated 80,000 property owners would be eligible.
A senior with an annual income of $25,000 who pays $1,770 a year in property taxes — after factoring in any state credit they may be eligible for — would save an additional $380 under Young's proposal.
"The need to support our seniors and ensure they can continue to stay in their homes is paramount to creating a better Baltimore," Young said. "From a financial standpoint, it makes total sense to do everything within our power to keep low-income older adults in their homes and out of poverty."
Claudia Wilson-Randall, director of housing counseling at Southeast Community Development Corp., said helping seniors helps neighborhoods.
"They are consistent and stable forces in the community," Wilson-Randall said.
The state has authorized local governments to provide such tax breaks under the Homeowners' Tax Credit Program, according to Young's office. The cost of the credit to the city's budget has not been determined.
State data show that more than 40 percent of Maryland's low-income minority seniors lived in Baltimore in 2010.
In other business, the council gave final approval to legislation that would extend tax credits given to people or businesses that make improvements to historic properties. The bill would keep the 10-year tax credits in place until 2021. It also provides for larger credits on expensive developments. The bill allows properties valued up to $5 million to receive the full 10-year tax credits, an increase from the $3.5 million ceiling in the current law.