It will be easy to spend the money from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund established last year by an amendment to the city charter. It will be a challenge, however, to spend it in a manner that achieves the fund's goal of materially improving the lives of young people in the city's poorer neighborhoods — particularly through a process already tainted by politics and racially charged rhetoric.
Each fiscal year the city now is required to place at least $0.03 for every $100 of assessable property value in the fund "to be used exclusively for purposes of establishing new and augmenting existing programs for and services to the children and youth of this city." In the coming fiscal year the fund will have about $12 million to spend. Much of that money will be disbursed in the form of grants to community and social service organizations.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake warned about the pitfalls of creating "earmarked" sources of funds for this type of purpose. Whatever else she may have been wrong about, she was right about that. A major risk is that the city will end up funding a hodgepodge of activities that fail to make any real dent in the problem of at-risk children.
More than anything else, Baltimore needs to develop and implement a comprehensive plan focused like a laser on identifying and delivering those programs and services to children and families that are most likely to reduce the likelihood that children will turn to a life of crime. "Nice to have" programs and services are a luxury. Funds must be applied in a strategic manner; the "transformation zones" program begun by the city is an excellent example. Strategic funding is harder to achieve when the decision-making process is reactive rather than proactive because it is driven by grant proposals rather than by a specific plan.
The size of the task force convened by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to design the administrative process is a bad omen. A 34-member task force is unwieldy and means only one thing: Mr. Young wanted to bring on board as many of the "stakeholder" community groups as possible for political support. If a politicized approach is carried forward into the administration of the fund, there will be an emphasis on spreading the wealth as broadly as possible rather than as wisely as possible.
Task force co-chairman Adam Jackson said his goal "is to make sure grassroots, black-led organizations are positioned to get the funding." He explained that if the task force "is serious about addressing systemic racism and poverty, the only response is investing in people and black-led organizations."
First of all, the focus by Mr. Jackson on who gets the money rather than how the money is spent is another sign that the process is in danger of being hijacked by politics. Secondly, nothing in the language of the charter amendment refers to addressing "systemic racism," and the use of such language can become a serious liability. His comment arises from the same mindset that led to the attacks by Councilman Ryan Dorsey and others on Kevin Plank for his Point Covington development as an alleged example of white supremacy and privilege.
Let's assume for the moment that the city's economic and social problems are indeed artifacts of systemic racism and white supremacy. How would that fact inform the concrete solutions to city problems? It would not, and the tiresome, racially-charged rhetoric can do significant damage. The city is dependent for its survival on the goodwill of people who live elsewhere in Maryland, like Mr. Plank, and language that accomplishes nothing more than offending people whose support is needed is, in a word, stupid. Don't make the job of persuading white people to give up more of their tax money to help the city harder than it already is.
Hopefully Council President Young and his task force will do better as work progresses on recommendations for implementing the Children and Youth Fund. If not the mayor and City Council would do well to discard those recommendations and apply the $12 million to the transformation zones program, which holds real promise for helping the young people of Baltimore.
David Plymyer retired in 2014 as the county attorney for Anne Arundel County, and previously served five years as an assistant state's attorney. His email is email@example.com; Twitter: @dplymyer.