xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott defends slow approach to police spending reform following outcry from public over budget

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s office urged patience Thursday following a raucous annual Taxpayers’ Night in which dozens of city residents condemned the first-term mayor’s proposed spending plan.

“Everyone — including the mayor — should feel energized about advancing equitable policing measures in light of the Chauvin verdict, but tackling violent crime is not easy,” Scott’s spokesman Cal Harris said in a statement referring to the guilty verdict delivered by a Minnesota jury earlier this week for a white police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, a Black man.

Advertisement

“Real leadership requires diligence, and Mayor Scott is exhibiting that through the creation of a task force to carefully realign Baltimore Police Department resources to fulfill the requirements of the consent decree and make neighborhoods safer,” Harris added.

Scott’s $3.6 billion budget proposal has come under scrutiny, in particular a $28 million increase in funding for the city’s police department the plan proposes. The agency’s proposed $555 million allocation accounts for more than 15% of Scott’s total proposed spending plan.

Advertisement
Advertisement

About 80 residents spoke out against the proposed increase Wednesday during the city’s annual Taxpayers’ Night, many demanding 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.

“On its own, the amount of money spent on policing is ridiculous, but compared to the amount spent on other necessities it’s absurd,” said Onyinye Alheri, a resident of Upton. “We want our tax dollars to be used to address really dire problems in our communities.”

The outcry comes in the wake of a year marked by mass nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following the death of Floyd, who was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes. But Baltimore leaders have faced calls to defund police or significantly revamp the city’s public safety budget for several years. Scott, himself, has in the past led the charge for such reform.

Last year, when Scott, a Democrat who became mayor in December, was still serving as City Council president, the group cut $22.4 million from then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s proposed budget, most from police spending. The council intended for the savings to be redirected to community enrichment efforts, such as opening recreation centers on Sundays, increasing trauma services and offering Black-owned businesses forgivable loans, but Young, a Democrat, refused to reallocate the money. It instead went into a surplus for the 2022 budget.

Advertisement

Several speakers at Wednesday’s Taxpayers’ Night said they regretted voting for the mayor after seeing the increase to the police budget in his first spending proposal.

“I am extremely disappointed in Mayor Scott,” said Julie Merrell, a teacher in Baltimore schools. “Right now the mayor is showing that he cares more about providing surveillance technology and deadly weapons to police officers than he cares about investing in Black neighborhoods, families and kids.”

“The budget values the familiar over the technocratic,” said Melissa Schober, a resident of Harwood. “I regret my vote for you, Mr. Mayor.”

Edith Lopez Estrada, a resident of Park Heights, noted the 2022 budget keeps spending steady for mental health services at $4.7 million, which is less than 1 percent of the police budget.”As a taxpayer, I do not approve of your proposed city budget and I believe it is a terrible use of our city funding,” she said.

Of the approximately 80 residents who spoke Wednesday, none supported Scott’s plan. There are nearly 400,000 registered voters in the city.

Scott has not offered enthusiastic support for his spending plan, instead saying Wednesday it presents a “continuity of services” as the city continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. He warned it does not “reflect the direction I want to and we will move in the future.” The mayor pledged to bring the budget “into stronger alignment with our priorities.”

“We will work tirelessly to re-imagine public safety in Baltimore,” Scott said Wednesday. “In a city that has budgeted the way it has for my entire lifetime, it’s going to take more than one fiscal year.”

No new programs are funded by the increased police budget proposal for 2022. Most of the increase is due to higher costs for active employee health insurance and higher obligations for police pensions, Budget Director Bob Cenname explained.

Comptroller Bill Henry, who will have a vote on the proposed budget as one of five members of the Board of Estimates, is among the proposal’s critics. Henry said Wednesday he had “serious concerns” about the budget, calling it a “continuation of the status quo.”

“Baltimore City needs a budget which allocates less money to the police department and invests more money into our people and our communities,” Henry said.

Henry said Thursday he is unable to propose specific cuts to the police budget until the agency’s budget details are released. That’s not slated to happen until May 17, one week after the Board of Estimates is expected to vote on the plan. Following that, the budget will be considered by City Council. A final plan must be passed by June 24. The fiscal year ends June 30.

Voters expect a lot from Scott given his past efforts to reform the police budget and the fact that he positioned himself as a change agent during the 2020 mayoral campaign, Henry said. Those expectations fueled some of the outcry Wednesday night, he said.

“He’s got a lot to live up to,” Henry said. “For what it’s worth, I have not lost faith.”

Some police spending cut by the City Council in the 2021 budget has been spent regardless, budget discussions revealed. The board cut $553,000 last year dedicated to the department’s mounted patrol unit, but about $500,000 was spent on the unit anyway. Cenname explained during a budget discussion with the Board of Estimates earlier Wednesday that the horses were kept for “on-call” purposes.

Scott’s budget for 2022 includes $500,000 for the mounted unit, which he said he plans to include in the city’s recreation and parks budget for city youth to learn to ride.

The police department is also on track to exceed its overtime budget for 2021, despite a $7 million cut by the City Council last year. During a February budget briefing, Cenname called the council’s cut “overly aggressive” and said the department needed to hit a target of spending $1 million per pay period on overtime to make the council’s goal. To date, police were spending about $1.1 million to $1.2 million per pay period.

Council President Nick Mosby, who will vote on the budget as a member of the Board of Estimates and along with City Council, called Wednesday night’s testimony “impactful” and “passionate.” The outpouring was reflective of a paradigm shift in Baltimore and beyond to separate police work from clinical and social work to address societal problems, he said.

Asked whether there is an appetite on the City Council to cut police spending this year, Mosby said it was too early to make that call.

Advertisement

“I think it’s important that everything is still on the table,” he said.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement