From health officials, he’ll hear dire predictions of COVID-19 spikes. The number crunchers will point to line after line of red ink. Residents, businesses and advocacy groups will clamor for attention to persistent problems ranging from crime to trash pickup.
Baltimore’s newly elected mayor, Brandon Scott, will be sworn in Dec. 8 to lead a city where needs outstrip the resources to address them — a problem even before the coronavirus pandemic created a public health and economic crisis.
After a year in which schools largely remain closed, many businesses have shuttered and city government has been run by a lame-duck mayor, Scott will take office with an ample to-do list.
“We definitely need the new administration to hit the ground running,” said Ashiah Parker, who heads the West Baltimore neighborhoods group No Boundaries Coalition.
She has watched as unemployment has risen, adding to the ongoing problems of crime and poverty in many neighborhoods. But Parker said she sees reason to hope as Scott and a new group of elected officials take office at such a critical time.
“As we rebuild, he has an interesting opportunity to unite the city,” she said. “I really hope we can move forward as a city.”
Joining Scott in new positions at City Hall will be Nick Mosby, who replaces him as City Council president, and Bill Henry as comptroller. All are Democrats who served on the City Council together.
Scott said “clearly” his incoming team will have to prioritize two things ― “1A and 1B,” as he calls them.
“We’re going to have to lead through the pandemic," he said, “and the epidemic of gun violence.”
Scott said he has told both the health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, and the police commissioner, Michael Harrison, that they will stay on.
As the coronavirus pandemic worsens across the country as winter approaches, "Baltimore is not going to be spared,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner.
"With the holidays coming and with it being harder to socialize outdoors,” she said, “I’m extremely concerned.”
Wen, a visiting professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, said cities and states have been hampered by “a lack of a national strategy” to date, something she hopes will change in the future.
“We definitely need the new administration to hit the ground running.”— Ashiah Parker, head of the West Baltimore neighborhoods group No Boundaries Coalition
“So much damage has already been done,” she said. “By January … we could have a half-million deaths in this country.”
The city gradually lifted restrictions on businesses, restaurants and other gathering places as the number of cases previously went down. But now with cases rising again, Wen said, Scott will face some tough choices.
“He’s going to have to ask people to do things they don’t want to do,” she said.
Scott said he’s prepared to impose new restrictions if necessary. “I will not be afraid to listen to my health commissioner and the other experts," he said. “People aren’t going to like everything, but that’s going to be my job.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on city government finances. With Baltimore collecting less revenue from sources such as parking, hotels and conventions, it ended the fiscal year June 30 with a $14.3 million deficit, said Bob Cenname, city budget director. The city has had to dip into its rainy day fund and institute hiring and spending freezes to balance its books.
While not all revenue streams are running low — a heated real estate market has kept transfer and recording fees flowing into public coffers — the future remains uncertain. Currently, city officials anticipate a $103 million shortfall in revenues this fiscal year, Cenname said.
All cities are facing fiscal challenges to varying degrees, said Amy Liu, who directs the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“This is a really pivotal time to be mayor,” she said.
During such a challenging time, mayors can focus on sectors of the economy that are improving, such as information technology services and the logistics industry that support Amazon and other retailers that have become so vital with more stay-at-home workers, Liu said. They can find ways to partner with businesses and philanthropies to offer job training, employment opportunities and neighborhood redevelopment resources, she said.
Liu said mayors can take advantage of this “economic lull” and seek to rebuild their economies in a way that addresses the other overriding issue that has emerged this tumultuous year — the call for racial equity.
“You have to do both at the same time,” she said. “If you’re not, you’re not going to solve for racial justice.”
Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said a change in Washington could have a big impact on cities. He points to how Kurt Schmoke was aided by having an ally — not to mention a fellow Rhodes scholar — with President Bill Clinton in the White House during part of Schmoke’s time in City Hall.
“When he was mayor, he had the Clinton administration lobbying for what cities need,” Hartley said.
Now, the goal for city and state leaders is to lean on their congressional delegations and the president for more aid, he said, with funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expiring.
“It’s going to be a difficult problem,” Hartley said. “Where do you cut? Where do you put your resources?”
He sees a ray of hope for the city in its relative affordability, compared with other East Coast cities, both as a place to live or acquire retail space. If it can create incentives, the city could spur new business growth, Hartley said.
As always, crime remains a priority, for both residents and businesses, even if they don’t decry it in as colorful terms as an executive of Dick’s Last Resort did when the Inner Harbor restaurant closed in September. He blamed the city for the company’s woes, calling it a “hellhole dumpster fire of violence and danger.”
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee business group, said he is eager for Scott to work closely with the police commissioner to reduce violent crime. Baltimore has had more than 300 homicides each of the past five years.
With the Barnes & Noble bookstore at the Harbor also closing this summer, and the Harborplace pavilions in receivership and increasingly empty, Fry said the city also needs to step up and rescue the once lively attraction.
“We would hope that the city and the next mayor would be more aggressive in trying to work with the receiver and trying to find a solution to how we can revitalize, or reinvigorate, Harborplace,” Fry said. “Our harbor has been a calling card for the city for many years.”
Other parts of Baltimore, particularly its distressed neighborhoods, need the city to provide youth centers and attract grocery stores and other amenities, Fry said.
In recent years and particularly on the campaign trail, Scott has frequently spoken about how everything in city government must operate through a “lens of equity.”
Now, he says, he will be “ecstatic” to switch from being the legislator who sponsored the bill creating Baltimore’s Equity Assessment Program — which requires budgets and proposed legislation to be weighed for racial, gender and economic equity — to the executive who implements the law.
If the past is any indication, crime and policing issues will claim much of the new mayor’s attention.
Scott said he and Harrison will work to implement the federal consent decree that mandates police reform, as well as a comprehensive plan to address gun violence. But he said he also wants to involve other agencies in a more holistic effort that seeks to identify at-risk youth and divert them from becoming drawn into criminal acts.
Ray Kelly, a longtime community leader who worked with Scott to create the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission, said he thinks the mayor-elect’s upbringing in Park Heights uniquely positions him for support from residents as he seeks to make the city safer.
“He understands this city not only politically and economically, but also from grassroots,” said Kelly, who heads the advocacy group Citizens Policing Project. “He grew up in the neighborhoods we all did."
As a council member and then council president, Scott has been involved in demonstrations himself. As protests spread across the country after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he participated in Baltimore’s largely peaceful marches. He was a co-founder of the anti-violence group 300 Men March that was active before and after the Freddie Gray protests of 2015.
“He’s stayed connected," Kelly said. “He’s stayed grounded.”
Scott said he understands the urgency of the issues before him, and promised “to hit the ground running.”
At a time of high citizen engagement, there are any number of groups ready to hold him to his word. Already, there is unhappiness: On Wednesday, the day after he was elected, protesters spoke out and erected cardboard tombstones outside City Hall to express their anger over the Board of Estimates approving a 10-year extension of the city’s agreement with a private trash incinerator.
Scott voted against it, but some environmentalists say he should have fought harder against the incinerator, which is Baltimore’s largest single source of air pollution. Scott has pledged to seek to divert as much waste as possible during his term as mayor.
The Baltimore chapter of the Sunrise Movement environmental group will push the new mayor on issues ranging from recycling to regional transportation to taking money from the police department for other city needs, said Evelyn Hammid, a leader with the group.
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Hammid said Sunrise wants Scott to hire a public works director, one of several top city government positions he will need to fill, who is committed to zero waste.
There are other high-level vacancies Scott will fill, including a new housing commissioner — Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young fired Michael Braverman in August — and a director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights.
And, as a result of a charter amendment that he pushed, Scott will also hire Baltimore’s first-ever city administrator to take over day-to-day operations.
Hartley said that despite the challenges faced by Scott and members of his administration, residents likely will cut them some slack, at least initially.
“The expectations are going to be reasonable,” he said. "People want change, and if the economy starts to heal on their watch, they’re going to get the credit.
“But that’s also a lot of responsibility,” Hartley added. “If you don’t show progress, there’s no one else to blame.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.