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Young's youth fund: Right in spirit, wrong on policy

Jack Young's youth fund: Right in spirit, wrong on policy.

When City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young proposed a charter amendment that would require Baltimore to set aside 3 percent of its discretionary budget every year for youth initiatives, we congratulated his willingness to recognize the need for a new paradigm in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, even as we expressed reservations about the particulars of his idea. Now, having passed the council unanimously, it has been vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and looks ripe for the first override of the city's chief executive in three decades.

On the spirit of the matter, we side firmly with Mr. Young. Baltimore needs to find ways to use its resources to break the cycle of poverty that has led to stunted opportunities and tragic consequences for Gray and so many like him. What we're doing is clearly not working. But on the merits of this specific policy, Ms. Rawlings-Blake is right.

Her chief objection is that tying up 3 percent of the city's budget for any purpose, no matter how laudable, is bad fiscal policy. It would force future mayors (she, by virtue of deciding not to run for re-election, won't have to deal with this one way or the other) to cut more deeply into other programs and priorities in times of fiscal stress, and it could set back the city's efforts to improve its bond ratings. If that happens, the increased borrowing costs that would come as a consequence might do as much to hurt the city as this fund would do to help. Baltimore frequently finds itself in budget troubles (including a projected $75 million deficit for next year), and its finances are complicated at the moment by the impact of its tax incentive policies on state school funding. Because the city has been successful in attracting new development in recent years, it looks less poor as far as state education funding formulas go and thus deserving of less state aid, even though much of that new paper wealth is exempted for the time being from paying full property taxes. State lawmakers are seeking a solution, but city officials can't ignore the possibility that they may soon need to start contributing a larger share of the costs of K-12 education.

That said, the legislation's requirements could be managed. Other cities have done it. The bigger question is whether it is the most effective way to move the city forward. As it stands, this proposal amounts to something of a solution in search of a problem. It's not that Baltimore's youth don't need more help or that the city's families don't need more support. They surely do. It's that the legislation establishes an arbitrary amount of increased funding for certain kinds of programs without a determination first of what the scope of the need is or whether those are precisely the kinds of interventions that would do the most good. Too many details of what would be funded and how remain undefined, and there has been no discussion of what spending might be cut in other areas if this proposal becomes law.

A better model is the state's Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a bi-partisan collaboration of the executive, legislative and judicial branches on the state level to identify specific sentencing, parole, probation and other policies that can be changed to save money without impacting public safety, as well as investments that can be made to reduce crime and recidivism. Surely it would make more sense to first identify what Baltimore is spending money on now that is unhelpful or even harmful to the goals Mr. Young has outlined and what the best practices are to achieve them. In his weekly newsletter, Mr. Young notes that too much of the money the city currently spends on youth is related to criminal justice rather than "proactive, outcome-based programming that's proven to prevent juvenile delinquency and strenghten outcomes for youth." That sounds like a good place to start.

We're under no illusion that these or any other arguments will stop this proposal from landing on the ballot. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has wiggled out of some seeming slam-dunk overrides in the past, but in an election year, we expect this idea will be impossible for council members to resist. But it might be possible to convince the electorate that there's a better way forward. Those running for mayor — including the two who voted for the initiative in the council — should realize that this legislation would tie their hands and might crowd out other, equally worthwhile priorites. To prove this charter amendment is unnecessary, they need to make addressing the needs Mr. Young has identified as a central focus of the campaign.

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