Outcry over Baltimore’s proposed budget, in particular police spending, continued Thursday during the city’s second and final Taxpayers’ Night forum.
The event, this time hosted by the City Council, is one of two forums for the public to comment on the spending plan put forward by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott. The budget, which totals $4.3 billion, has been approved by the Board of Estimates and now is being scrutinized by the council, which has a week of budget hearings scheduled to begin Tuesday.
As they did during the earlier Taxpayers’ Night, hosted by the mayor in April, city residents crowded Thursday night’s virtual forum, calling for officials to reduce spending on the Baltimore Police Department. The mayor’s budget calls for spending $555 million on the department in the fiscal year that starts July 1, $28 million more than was allocated last year.
The increase would fund no new programs. Instead, the money would pay for increased costs for employee health insurance and police pensions.
Advocates decried the increase nonetheless, calling for money to be reallocated to social programs such as affordable housing, after-school programs, crisis centers and substance abuse treatment.
Rob Ferrell, a West Baltimore resident and senior organizer with Organizing Black, called the city police an “occupying military force” that violates citizens’ rights and incarcerates residents.
“When I talk to Black residents of Baltimore, it’s like a broken record,” Ferrell said. “I hear folks want a greater say in how their tax dollars are spent, and they don’t want police to be the immediate option.”
Ferrell called on the council to reduce spending on the police department by $100 million.
Thomas James, a resident of Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore and visual arts director at Creative Alliance, said the city would have more success using arts programming as an intervention for the youth of Baltimore than what he described as the current approach of “overpolicing.” James said his neighborhood is a “police-occupied area” and that officers have done little to diminish crime.
“There is entirely too little funding for that [arts] when there is an increase in an already ridiculously large budget for the Baltimore Police Department,” James said. “There’s so much more we can invest in the city of Baltimore to improve the lives of Baltimore youth and residents at large.”
The council members, most of who attended the forum, largely refrained from speaking. Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, who chaired the meeting, explained to participants that the council can only cut — not reallocate — funding. Expanded powers, approved by voters last year via a charter amendment, don’t take effect until 2022.
Council members have offered few hints about where they might cut the budget, which includes hotel and parking revenue streams severely diminished by the consequences of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. The city will receive $640 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, but Scott has yet to announce a plan for those funds in the fiscal 2022 budget.
Scott has not offered enthusiastic support for his proposed budget, calling it a “continuity of services” spending plan hampered by the pandemic.
While the majority of the participants in the forum spoke out against police spending, a few offered support for a police budget.
Carter Washington, a youth from East Baltimore, said he finds the police department helpful, saying that ”when something goes wrong, they show up.”
”I wish we had police walking around and stopping the trouble before it starts,” he said. “I realize this is not going to happen if they do not get more funding.”
Participant Jacob Richardson called the police essential, keeping order and solving crimes to bring peace to victim’s families. He decried the forum for being dominated by “activists” who don’t represent Baltimore.
”The working people of Baltimore support the police,” he said. “Don’t you dare defund the police next year. Don’t make it so these victims of crime can never have closure in their lives.”
But Dan Richman, a resident of Patterson Park, said at Thursday night’s forum that it was “unacceptable” that more money is dedicated to police in the proposed budget, even if it would cover pensions and health insurance.
“Take it out of somewhere else,” Richman said of the increase. “It is absolutely shameful.”
Some of the ire directed at the mayor over the spending plan has been fueled by his 2020 campaign pledges to reform police spending and his record on City Council, where he served before becoming mayor in December. Scott led the council’s efforts last year to cut $22 million from the budget, most from police spending, with hopes of reallocating the money to social programs, including opening recreation centers on Sundays, increasing trauma services and offering Black-owned businesses forgivable loans.
Then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, rejected that plan, sending the money that the council cut to the city’s surplus instead.
The council has until June 24 to pass a final budget.