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Baltimore should analyze agencies' policies on racial equity but not set up another dedicated fund

When members of Baltimore’s Planning Department sought to investigate whether the city’s capital spending was racially and socio-economically equitable, they came to some startling findings. Over a five-year period when the city allocated $670 million to such projects, neighborhoods that were at least 75 percent white got, on average, $15 million in spending, while those that were at least 75 percent black got just $8 million. The disparity based on wealth was even greater: Neighborhoods where less than 20 percent of people lived below the poverty line got an average of $14 million in capital spending, but those with more than 40 percent in poverty got just $3.5 million.

Five of Baltimore’s last six mayors have been black, and the City Council has been majority black for years. We doubt they have intentionally discriminated against African-American neighborhoods. But the data the planning department compiled suggest that the legacy of a time when the city’s mayors and councils (and assorted other powers that be, official and otherwise) did intentionally discriminate has not been erased and in fact somehow continues to shape the way the city government operates today.

For that reason, we support City Councilman Brandon Scott’s legislation to require other city agencies to conduct similar analyses. If disparities persist in how the city allocates its spending on capital projects — some of the most obvious and easily tracked actions a government takes — it begs the question of how unjust past practices may continue to influence many of the city’s subtler policies, whether it’s code enforcement or parking tickets or hiring practices. Mr. Scott’s legislation calls for agencies not only to examine their practices but to develop plans to actively reverse disparity based on race, gender or income.

We do not, however, support a companion bill he introduced to put a charter amendment on the ballot requiring the creation of a fund dedicated to eliminating “structural and institutional racism.” The legislation calls for it to be funded annually with an amount equivalent to 3 percent of the Police Department’s budget, which would translate to about $15 million a year.

We get the symbolism of pegging the size of the fund to the police budget, given the justifiable sense in many neighborhoods that the only investment Baltimore has made in their communities consists of arresting people. And we certainly don’t object to the city supporting projects that foster Mr. Scott’s goal. But we object to this dedicated fund for the very same reason that we opposed City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s mandatory youth fund — it’s simply bad budgeting practice.

The city government needs the flexibility to tailor its annual spending to meet the community’s greatest needs at any given time. The more we lock away portions of the budget for one cause or another — no matter how noble — the less we are able to do that. Who is to say that the appropriate amount to spend on racial equity is 3 percent of whatever the police budget happens to be — or, for that matter, who’s to say that 0.03 percent of the city’s assessable property tax base is the right amount to dedicate to new youth initiatives?

This year, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh managed to find the approximately $12 million needed for Mr. Young’s youth fund without causing major strain on the budget, but that’s at a time when the economy is strong and the tax base is expanding. It might be a different story in a recession, and particularly so if we start fencing off money for more new causes. First, youth enrichment. Then, racial equity. Next, what? Environmental clean-up? Drug treatment? Re-entry services? Park enhancements? There is no end of worthy causes.

By all means, let’s examine the city’s policies to find out how we can address continued inequities, but let’s not tie our hands in how we provide the best services to city residents.

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