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Baltimore’s spending board approves proposed budget with police funding hike. Next, City Council gets a crack at it.

Baltimore’s spending board approved a proposed budget with an $28 million increase in police spending Wednesday, setting the stage for City Council to consider the plan.

The now-$4.3 billion budget — just increased to add federal pandemic relief funding — was approved by a 4-0 vote with one abstention, from Democratic City Comptroller Bill Henry. Henry, who was elected comptroller last year, bemoaned the fact that the budget process does not make department-level details public before the Board of Estimates is expected to vote on the plan.

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“I now realize our city has been doing it this way for years, simply having the BOE approve the budget as a high-level concept,” Henry said.

“I cannot say I’ve had access to the full level of detail that I should have before casting this vote,” he added.

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The budget, the first proposed by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott since he took office in December, seeks to navigate the city’s finances through a second year of pandemic-addled revenues. It accounts for expected “historic lows” in money from parking, hotel taxes and the Baltimore Convention Center.

Scott’s spending plan would hold the line on property and income taxes, although it does include a 911 fee increase of 25 cents per phone line to pay for improving emergency dispatch technology.

More controversially, the spending plan calls for an increase in the budget for the police department to $555 million. That idea was panned by dozens of city residents during the city’s annual Taxpayers’ Night. City budget officials have said the increase does not fund new programs and is instead needed to pay for employee health insurance and higher obligations for police pensions.

Angry residents, some of who said they regretted their vote for the first-term mayor, demanded at that meeting a $100 million cut to police funding and millions more in investment in social programs such as affordable housing, after-school programs, crisis centers and substance abuse treatment.

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Scott has sought to defend his plan, arguing it presents a “continuity of services” as the city continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. He warned last month the budget does not “reflect the direction I want to and we will move in the future.”

The mayor did not comment Wednesday on the budget.

Henry, who also spoke out against Scott’s plan during Taxpayers’ Night, said Wednesday there were “good things” in the proposal, including enough funding for the Youth Works summer jobs program and money for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.

Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby, who also chairs the five-member Board of Estimates, voted in favor of the proposed budget Wednesday. He said that vote was out of respect to Scott and his staff and because it was “procedurally necessary” to move the process forward.

Functionally, Mosby and Henry have little control over the proposed budget as members of the Board of Estimates because they’re outnumbered by Scott and two people who work for him: Matthew Garbark, director of public works, and Jim Shea, the city’s solicitor.

Department-level financial details become public Monday, the same day the budget is introduced to City Council.

The council will hold a week of hearings on the budget next month. But it also has limited control over the spending plan. Although city voters passed a charter amendment last year to give the council more authority, it doesn’t become effective until next year. So, the council currently can only cut spending and can’t reallocate such funds.

The 2022 fiscal year begins July 1, and a final, balanced budget must be approved by June 24.

Council members have not signaled how they intend to proceed with the budget this year. Mosby has said previously all options “remain on the table.” Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the ways and means committee, has called the spending plan “very responsible.”

Last year, under Scott’s leadership as then-City Council president, the council cut $22.4 million from then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget, the majority from police spending. The council intended for the savings to be redirected to community enrichment efforts, but the Democratic mayor refused to reallocate the money. It instead went into a surplus for the 2022 budget.

Scott’s 2022 preliminary budget assumes “modest” recovery from the pandemic and assumes there will be no further COVID-related disruptions or shutdowns.

Revenue streams that rely on tourists and commuters have been hardest hit by measures to control the spread of the disease. The projected budget anticipates $13.9 million in parking revenue next year, less than half what the city made before the pandemic. Hotel tax revenue is projected at $19.6 million in 2022, 8% less than the current fiscal year, for which expectations were reduced.

On Wednesday, Bob Cenname, the city’s budget director, announced that $670 million due to be received by the city from the American Rescue Plan had been added to the proposed budget since it was first introduced in April. City officials have not announced how they plan to spend that money, which is dedicated to pandemic relief, nor given much detail about the process to allocate it.

Reassessment of city properties, a tool to increase property tax revenue, also has been hampered by the pandemic, particularly on commercial land. Properties in South Baltimore were reassessed for the 2022 budget, and the overall growth in value was 3.6%. Residential properties in the area increased in value by 6.5%, but commercial properties increased by only 0.9%.

The unusual circumstances presented by the pandemic have been a boon for a few areas of the city’s budget. Traffic camera revenue jumped substantially as drivers took advantage of less crowded city roads. Baltimore expects to make $21 million in fiscal 2022 from red light and speed camera fines. More than $24 million is expected to flow into city coffers for fiscal 2021.

Scott’s spending plan includes only limited new initiatives amid the reduction in revenue, but he proposes leveraging financing from private groups to fund several quality-of-life and anti-crime initiatives. For instance, a recycling can is expected to be provided to every city home with $8.3 million from a private grant and an interest-free loan, city officials said. Another $600,000 in private funding would pay for the creation of a Group Violence Reduction Strategy. That plan would expand opportunities for at-risk populations and try to foster better relationships between police officers and the communities they serve.

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