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Baltimore City Council launches week of budget hearings amid coronavirus’ economic aftermath, calls to ‘defund the police’

The Baltimore City Council will hold 50 hours of hearings this week on the city's budget, including reexamining the police department spending.
The Baltimore City Council will hold 50 hours of hearings this week on the city's budget, including reexamining the police department spending. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Council began the daunting task Monday of reviewing a proposed $3 billion operating budget as the city transitions to a new mayoral administration amid a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, a ransomware attack and protests over police brutality.

Underpinning about 50 hours of virtual hearings the council has scheduled this week is the emerging “defund the police” movement that wants to shift spending from traditional policing to investments in things like affordable housing, public schools and job training programs. The series of hearings on city agency budgets culminates with the police department Friday at 5:30 p.m.

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The council is reviewing the budget for the year beginning July 1 submitted by outgoing Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Council members — who can make cuts to the proposal and negotiate funding priorities with the administration, but cannot increase any spending — are expected to vote June 15 on the budget.

Protests, meanwhile, were planned outside City Hall as budget proceedings got underway to persuade the council to support direct cuts to the police department’s proposed $557.6 million budget, an increase of about $21 million over the current fiscal year.

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Sharon Black, an organizer with the Peoples Power Assembly, said at a time when the city must make budget cuts because of the coronavirus, all spending reductions should come from the police department. That would protect other services from taking a hit, she said. In the process, she said, policing in Baltimore must be reimagined.

“Any policing that exists needs to be radically changed so that the community has the control of any apparatus to protect and keep people safe,” Black said. “We have a police force that is viewed as the enemy because of longstanding practices of racism and police brutality.”

Council President Brandon Scott, a leading Democratic mayoral contender, said the budget process must focus on equity — including a full vetting of the police budget. The “defund the police” movement has risen from the protests following the killing last month of George Floyd by law enforcement in Minneapolis, but Scott said Baltimore’s conversation about police funding has been ongoing for years.

Scott wrote a letter Monday to Young calling for a task force to study re-prioritizing spending. Scott said he wants to work with Young to appoint a task force to recommend by Nov. 1 ways to continue reducing police spending.

The task force would be made up of as many as 11 people, including city officials and residents. Besides reducing spending, Scott said the group should explore budgetary and policy impacts of making the police department a locally-controlled agency as way to give city officials more power to change how it functions.

For the upcoming budget, Scott said he is working to identify “tens of millions of dollars in strategic cuts” to the police spending that take into account the city’s public safety needs and obligations set forth in the police consent decree that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

“Baltimore must re-allocate its budget away from the current dependence on the police department,” Scott wrote to Young. "We must diversify our investments into agencies that focus on proactively developing our young people and communities.”

Young spokesman Lester Davis said the administration received the letter and will schedule a time to talk to Scott so they can give it “the consideration it deserves.”

As for the city’s overall budget, Scott said his goal is to pass a spending plan that addresses the needs of communities and neighborhoods where Baltimore has disinvested and where COVID-19 has taken the highest toll.

“Knowing there are going to have to be cuts,” he said, “unlike in 2008 with the Great Recession, the people who need services the most cannot be the ones who bear the brunt of it.”

The mayor’s budget proposal factors in projections that the city will bring in roughly $20 million less in revenue each month as a result of the outbreak and the widespread shutdowns designed to protect the public. Revenue from income taxes is expected to decline sharply with businesses closed and thousands of people unemployed. Money from parking tickets, traffic cameras and tourism also is down significantly.

Young proposed to close two fire companies, eliminate hundreds of vacant positions and reorganize the police department’s specialized units. In the wake of the ransomware attack that rocked the city a year ago, the administration wants to boost information technology spending by more than $12 million to protect and enhance Baltimore’s cyber infrastructure.

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The budget includes no new taxes or fees.

The mayor, who will leave office in December after appearing to lose the Democratic primary, was not available for an interview on the budget proposal or the “defund the police” movement.

“The City’s budget has been provided to the City Council and it is the Mayor’s expectation that after careful review the budget will be approved,” Davis, Young’s spokesman, said.

Residents can watch the hearings online by following directions on the City Council’s website. On Tuesday, hearings are scheduled for a half dozen agencies, including the Baltimore Development Corp. at 10 a.m., the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services at 12:30 p.m. and the Department of Public Works at 5:30 p.m.

Scott said he disagrees with some parts of the budget, including the proposal to close two fire companies. If he wins the election, Scott would have to implement Young’s budget for a portion of his first year in office. The mayor will take office following a general election in November.

Results from last week’s primary are still being counted. As of late Sunday, Scott is virtually tied with former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Because Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in Baltimore, the primary is expected to determine who Baltimore’s next mayor will be.

Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, the council’s budget chairman, said discussions with the administration will continue over the next week leading up to the council’s vote on the budget. He called Young’s proposal “very responsible.”

As for the debate over police funding, Costello said he is awaiting the police budget presentation on Friday before forming an opinion.

“Committing to that without having given the opportunity for the police commissioner to explain his crime plan, staffing plan and community engagement plan, and with respect to the consent decree, would be entirely premature,” Costello said.

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Councilman Ryan Dorsey, also a Democrat, said the police will never produce the reduced crime and higher quality of life that pumping money into the agency year after year has failed to deliver. That can only come from investing in other activities, such as deploying social workers to help address emergencies rooted in mental health crises, for example.

Dorsey said reimagining the police budget and spending across the city has the opportunity to bring in more revenue to government coffers by creating a city that offers a higher quality of life in a more livable place.

For instance, Dorsey drew attention during a hearing Monday to the opportunity for the city to generate up to $11 million more by providing better oversight of commercial parking facilities. Dorsey said the city is foregoing money by not better enforcing license fees required of commercial parking facility owners and updating the rates they must pay.

“Especially in these challenging times, we can’t afford to leave money on the table," Dorsey said. “And in a City where everyday citizens pay taxes, fines and fees on a regular basis, corporations must pay their fair share, too.”

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