Baltimore residents who voted for an end to the status quo might have been disappointed by the decision by the city’s Board of Estimates last week to approve Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4.3 billion budget — which included an increase to law enforcement spending — by a 4-0 vote with one abstention, clearing the way for the City Council to now consider it. The vote hardly represents the change many residents concerned about city spending hoped for. Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry, the member who declined to cast a vote, was the only one to show a little pushback on the board, which supervises city spending. But even that decision was disappointing, given Mr. Henry’s promises during his election campaign to advocate for more transparency and an end to the rubber-stamping that he claimed the board was prone to in the past.
Just three weeks ago, during an all-virtual Taxpayers’ Night, Mayor Scott was panned because of the budget’s $28 million increase in police spending, which we recognized as necessary given the current state of the city’s crime level and COVID recovery. At the time, Mr. Henry said he had “serious concerns” and called it a “continuation of status quo.” He helped to pile on to the criticism Mayor Scott faced from advocates by specifically pointing to problems with police funding: “Baltimore City needs a budget which allocates less money to the police department and invests more money into our people and our communities,” Mr. Henry said. But rather than take a stance, he chose to sit it out when it came to voting.
In response to questions, a spokeswoman for the comptroller said he did not having enough detail to be able to make an informed decision. Why exactly is the board making decisions on city spending without sufficient information? That does not show fiduciary prudence.
Mr. Henry still stands behind decreased police spending, his spokeswoman said, but is conscious of the limits imposed by the consent decree on making any significant budget changes. His office is looking at how other cities with consent decrees slashed police budgets without compromising compliance. He will also continue to urge the mayor to move some functions out of the police department that are centralized for other city agencies, such as telecommunications and legal.
Sounds like the comptroller may align more with Mayor Scott than he believes. We continue to stand behind the measured approach the first-term mayor is taking toward reforming the police department, a stance he’s come by since gaining executive powers and despite having voted to cut the police department budget while City Council President. The recent increase in spending was needed in large part because of the uncontrolled costs of higher health insurance and pension expenses, according to Budget Director Bob Cenname. Cuts must not be made haphazardly as the city is dealing with a spike in homicides. Mr. Scott has a plan to re-imagine the police department, including a recently announced pilot program to divert some 911 calls to social workers and clinicians. Let’s give him some time to make that happen.
We also want to turn out attention to another member of the board. Council President Nick Mosby said he voted for the budget out of respect for Mr. Scott and to advance further budget deliberations. We appreciate his promises that the City Council will now make a judicious review of the budget and make necessary changes; they should do no less. But the role of the Board of Estimates is just as important as that of the City Council and should be treated as such. We don’t want a ceremonial board.
The City Council will only be able to do so much this year. They can cut spending in the mayor’s preliminary budget but not redirect funding to services or programs. We hope that Mayor Scott will take into serious consideration suggestions the City Council might have. We wouldn’t want to see a repeat of last year when former Mayor Jack Young put money cut from the police budget by council members into surplus funds, rather than to other programs. That doesn’t show a government working for the betterment of the city, but one of clashing egos.
The City Council will have that power to redirect that spending next year, when a Charter amendment approved by voters in November 2020 goes into effect that gives the City Council that authority. Why not let the City Council execute some of that authority now through compromise? After all, Mayor Scott supported the idea of more City Council power. Let’s see where he stands on the issue now.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.