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At Virtual Taxpayers’ Night, Baltimore City officials warn of the coronavirus pandemic’s heavy economic toll

Baltimore officials held a Virtual Taxpayers’ Night to solicit residents’ feedback on the proposed 2021 budget, but acknowledged the plan will have to be almost entirely reworked to account for economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, people would gather at the War Memorial building downtown to testify on what should be included in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. But given the restrictions on large gatherings intended to slow the spread of the virus, such a meeting was deemed impossible.

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Residents instead called in Tuesday to a virtual meeting, though it was sparsely “attended.” There were roughly 20 minutes of public testimony, much of it questioning why Baltimore continues to allocate so much of its budget to its police department.

Carlton Perry, who identified himself as a lifelong Baltimore resident, said he worries that the budget as proposed is too focused on law enforcement spending. It calls for a more than $557 million police budget, an increase of roughly $21 million over last fiscal year.

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“The current issues we are facing right now are issues we can’t simply police our way out of,” Perry said. "What we need is a budget that’s fairly allocated, a budget that addresses public health, economic resource disparities and community-based law enforcement.

“We need something that’s going to help the people and citizens try to remedy some of the ground that we’ve lost due to the pandemic.”

Budget Director Bob Cenname cautioned that the proposal was preliminary, and didn’t take into account coronavirus-related projections. The budget plan will have to be reworked by the time the Board of Estimates votes on it in early May.

“The preliminary budget plan we have released was unfortunately outdated the minute it hit the press,” Cenname said. Still, officials wanted to make it public so that people could offer feedback.

The pandemic, and the measures imposed to try to stop it from spreading, have upended economic activity and crushed the city’s usual revenue streams. Officials say the city will bring in far less money tied to tourism, transportation and income taxes.

Cenname expects Baltimore will end the fiscal year with a $42.3 million deficit.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott on Tuesday called for the city to use $25 million from its rainy day fund to support small businesses, laid-off workers and homeless people as they cope with the fallout.

During Cenname’s presentation, he said drawing from that emergency fund must be a “last resort” to balance the budget, after all other reasonable options have been exhausted. He said the city’s reserves — there’s about $145 million in the fund — help it maintain a strong credit rating.

The city’s finance department is also forecasting that the city will bring in about $100 million less in revenue than anticipated for the fiscal year that begins in July.

And while Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has instituted a nonessential hiring and spending freeze, the city is still having to pay millions for emergency expenses related to the virus.

That’s why many of the details in the preliminary budget, which was drafted before the pandemic hit, are expected to change significantly.

“This budget,” Scott said, “is very, very much in flux.”

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