Baltimore’s lame duck Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young blocked City Council President Brandon Scott — the Democratic nominee for the city’s top job — from brokering a deal Monday to shift money in the $3 billion budget from police to public services.
The Young administration stymied negotiations even as the Council voted to eliminate about $23 million in spending during back-to-back meetings to finalize the budget in time to get tax bills to homeowners and businesses next month. The budget includes no new taxes or fees.
With plans to begin a multi-year process to redirect money from the police department, Scott said he regrets Young’s unwillingness to cooperate. Scott won this month’s Democratic primary, a contest that in Baltimore all but assures he will be elected the city’s 52nd mayor in November.
“Now is the moment,” Scott said. "Every city dollar must count. Young people who have led the protests and demonstrations here in Baltimore have been demanding that we finally think about investing in their futures rather than simply investing in their failures.
The Council voted 13-2 to give the budget key approval.
Young is expected to act on the budget in the coming days. It takes effect July 1.
Without action by Young to shift spending identified by the Council’s cuts, the money will likely default to a budget surplus in the next fiscal year. Baltimore’s charter gives the mayor control of spending in the budget process. City Council can only identify cuts.
The mayor stands by the budget, said Lester Davis, a chief Young aide. The cuts may have been made with good intentions, but they take away from the police department’s effort to implement “much needed reform, and that takes money.”
“You can’t reform a department while simultaneously cutting its budget,” Davis said.
Davis said Young respects the Council and acknowledges the “incredible amount of work” the members put into the process, but “the mayor still believes the budget he put forth was very responsible in the face of a global pandemic and decrease in expected revenue.”
Scott said the Council’s attempts at reducing the police department’s $550 million budget was a first step in responding to public outcry. Protesters in Baltimore, like elsewhere in the U.S., rallied around a call to “defund the police,” a movement that calls for a range of actions from abolishing departments to redirecting some of its funding to the root causes of crimes.
The protests were spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The episode was reminiscent of Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in the custody of Baltimore police in 2015.
Gray’s death led to a local reckoning and a series of efforts to reform the police department, including the federal consent decree that is designed to ensure police no longer violate people’s constitutional rights.
The Council wanted to use the money to open recreation centers on Sundays, avoid fire department company closures, improve energy efficiency on people’s homes, provide more money for trauma services and offer black-owned businesses forgivable loans, according to Scott.
Under the cuts, the police department must merge its marine unit with the fire department’s. The police department’s mounted unit also will be eliminated, even as new stables are being built in Southwest Baltimore. It is the country’s oldest such horse brigade.
The cuts would force police to spend about $7 million less in overtime costs.
Although the Council identified $23 million in spending, not all of it results in budget cuts. About half of it is for “unallocated” funds, which give agencies flexibility in spending while they await expected grants to arrive. The action means the police department will have to come to the Council for approval to spend money when grants are received.
Budget chairman Eric Costello, a South Baltimore Democrat, voted against the police cuts. He said the agency is “deeply in need of reform,” but the cuts are not fiscally responsible and may hurt the improvements Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is shepherding in.
Scott said the attempts to eliminate spending do so without “running afoul of the consent decree and being very considerate of public safety needs.”
The cuts were a first step in ushering in changing the police budget, Scott said. He asked Young to work with him to create a task force to recommend ways to reduce the police budget over time, but the mayor “politely declined.”
Despite the rejections, both Young and Scott insist they will work together until December when the new mayor is sworn in.
“Jack has a high level of affinity for Brandon and is very excited about the possibilities,” Davis said. “He supports him. He is going to work closely with him.”
Scott put it this way: “This is just an issue we disagree on.”
With the current mayor and his presumptive successor both still occupying powerful positions, political analyst Mileah Kromer said it can create a challenging dynamic.
“The outgoing mayor lost to the current City Council president,” said Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. “That’s a political dynamic that can easily create controversy, particularly if they don’t see issues the same way.”
The current debate over police spending is not just playing out between two men in Baltimore’s City Hall, she said. It’s a national conversation in which this city plays an outsize role, given its high homicide rate and history of police brutality.
“This is a defining issue for a generation,” Kromer said.
Veteran Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Bill Henry said it is not uncommon for mayors to reject Council cuts to a budget in Baltimore’s strong mayor form of government.
Clarke called Young’s decision not to negotiate with the Council “regrettable.”
“This is a new era we are in,” said Clarke, who is retiring from the Council later this year. “But my experience is, mayors have never agreed.”
Henry, who is the Democratic nominee for the city’s Comptroller, introduced pending legislation to ask the voters in November to give the Council the ability to shift spending when they identify cuts in the budget.
“My hope is that culturally what that would do is, it would change the balance of power between the mayor and Council,” Henry said.
Moments after passing the budget, City Councilman Zeke Cohen bemoaned the current system that allows the legislative body to cut from the budget but not reallocate funds. Cohen implored Young to reinvest the cuts into programs that “actually promote a safe, healthy, thriving Baltimore.”
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"Listen to the people who put us all in office and redistribute the money that has been cut,” he said.
Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat, said he hopes the mayor will reconsider convening a joint task force to reimagine the police budget. For a complex conversation like this one, he said, it’s valuable to have everyone at the table.
“The budget defines the priorities of a city,” he said. “There’s value in them coming together as one voice and trying to figure out what’s the best way forward.”
Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the judicial committee, said he supports the idea of Baltimore leaders taking a “deep dive” into how the city spends its money. He said elected officials are in a position where they can “capture the moment” and reimagine how public dollars are spent on policing — and that doesn’t mean simply wiping out funding like some activists are pushing.
Smith said he believes Scott won the Democratic mayoral primary because he ran on a message of ushering in a new way of thinking into City Hall, and reconsidering the way things have always been done.