Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott is proposing a $4.33 billion municipal budget for the fiscal 2022 year, a sum that accounts for federal aid and reimbursement, and projects at least some degree of economic recovery as the coronavirus pandemic lessens its grip on public life.
The budget, Scott’s first since taking office in December, outlines several priorities in the Democrat’s administration, including youth services, public safety, community health and wellness, neighborhood development and “responsible stewardship of city resources.”
It’s split into an operating plan worth about $3.8 billion and a capital plan valued at more than $487 million. The operating plan reflects a 27.5% increase from last year’s, while the capital plan is down nearly 41% from last year.
The city is projecting a 3.9% uptick in revenue in 2022, compared to the current fiscal year. That’s based on anticipated higher collection of property taxes, income taxes, highway user revenues and traffic cameras, among other categories. It is projecting losses in hotel tax revenues, parking revenues, and earnings and investments, largely due to the public health crisis.
“It is a recovery, but a modest recovery,” Bob Cenname, Baltimore’s budget director, said Tuesday. “It’s still hard to forecast. But now that we understand how COVID is impacting our revenues, we expect 2022 to be better than 2021. But we don’t expect prepandemic numbers.”
The budget plan delivered Monday to the City Council lays out a number of fiscal “risks” the city faces, including ongoing commitments to a multibillion-dollar statewide education reform program, drops in commercial real estate values, obligations to legal liabilities involving the Baltimore Police Department, and police and fire employee pensions.
Council members will formally review Scott’s proposed budget early next month, dedicating a week to hearing from departments and agencies before returning the plan with any of their changes to the mayor. He may approve the budget from there, or disapprove some items while approving the rest.
Federal, state aid offset some losses
The American Rescue Plan of 2021 will provide Baltimore with over $670 million in federal relief dollars, while nearly $25 million remains unspent from 2020′s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
CARES Act funds would be allocated to cleaning costs, personal protective equipment and city personnel expenditures. Funds from the America Rescue Plan are expected to start funneling this spring into Baltimore, but their exact destinations are not yet clear.
“ARP funds will be used to support essential front-line employees, shore up the city’s financial health, modernize city government, and deliver resources and projects that builds public trust and facilitates neighborhood-level change,” according to an executive summary of the budget.
The summary acknowledges the pandemic strained city resources and had a disproportionate effect on people with low incomes, as well as those in the arts and the hospitality and food industries.
Property, income taxes don’t go up
City residents pay more in property taxes than residents of any other Maryland jurisdiction. Baltimore’s real and personal property tax rate will remain at $2.248 and $5.62 per $100 of assessed value, respectively, in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Revenues from property taxes are projected to reach over $1 billion in 2022, an increase of about $13 million from the year before, or about 1.4%.
Income taxes in the city have reached the state’s maximum rate of 3.2%, and will not decrease in fiscal year 2022, according to the budget proposal. Despite job losses and population declines, city residents are, on average, earning a higher level of income than in years past.
DPW focuses on hiring, recycling
The city’s public works department, which handles trash, recycling and other services, would see its budget grow by about $50 million to $657 million, according to the budget proposal.
Funds are budgeted to increase the number of waste removal and recycling workers. Meanwhile, the number of administrative positions will decrease.
Baltimore Police Department keeps staff size
The police department would see its budget increase to around $555 million in 2022 from about $527 million in fiscal year 2021, despite backlash from advocates and activists who say some of those funds should support services such as schools, housing and recreation and public transportation.
Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry referred to the department’s budget as “the 800-pound gorilla” and the city’s budget priorities in general as “out of whack.”
But the city has a legal obligation to fund the police, he said. Some of the funding, especially on personnel, reflects mandates from a federal consent decree, which is legally binding.
“I have a firsthand appreciation for the difficulties in making substantial reductions to the Baltimore Police Department at this stage of the consent decree,” Henry said. “However, I don’t know if that means it just can’t be done, or if we should renegotiate certain aspects of the decree.”
“It makes sense, morally and financially, to focus on reducing the root elements of crime than the very expensive effort to deter it,” he said.
Scott has blamed “continuity of services” for the increases and said the budget does not “reflect the direction I want to and we will move in the future.”
The budget funds about 3,200 positions, most of them from the city’s general fund. The number of personnel would not change significantly from 2021. The department has set a hiring goal of 240, the same as the current fiscal year.
The budget calls for investment in a digital records program, funding for the training academy, a $4.8 million transfer of funds to the Department of Transportation for crossing guards, and an increase of spending on patrol, special operations, recruitment and “data-driven strategies.” There is also money allocated for radio repair and new technology.
Health department continues focus on coronavirus
The health department’s budget would increase to $208 million from about $169 million, although its staffing capacity is not expected to grow much.
The department has about half the workers a city of Baltimore’s size could use, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, its commissioner, said earlier this year. The agency has assumed an all-hands-on-deck approach to mitigating the coronavirus, despite the ongoing health threats residents face daily.
The department will continue running COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, as well as a contact tracing operation. There is also money set aside for a COVID “isolation center” for people experiencing homelessness. It will receive some CARES Act dollars and some federal relief.
The agency would see cuts in chronic disease prevention, youth and trauma services, senior centers and senior advocacy services. It also would see reduced funding for its “Healthy Homes” program, which conducts home visits to prevent exposure to lead, asthma triggers, pesticides and other toxins.
City funding would increase in all but one of those areas, but the budget shows less spending on them overall because of state and federal grants in the current fiscal year that have expired, representatives from the mayor’s office said. City funding of senior centers is planned at $1.3 million, compared with $1.5 million in the current fiscal year.
The health department would gain funding in most other categories, including clinical services, the units addressing substance use disorder and mental health, emergency services, HIV treatment services for the uninsured and environmental inspection services.
Schools start changing funding formula
Known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the multibillion-dollar education reform plan enacted by the General Assembly this year will change how schools across the state are funded. In Baltimore, where wealth-per-pupil is lower than the statewide average, more state money will flow in to help correct disparities.
The city’s budget for Baltimore’s public schools would decrease about $12 million to about $275 million in fiscal year 2022, although the system’s operating budget would increase. Funds would be directed toward health services, debt services for capital improvements and construction projects.
Council members and agency and department heads will start preparing questions and comments to present before the council and the public.
The council will hold a week of hearings on the budget starting June 1 and through June 7. The hearings will run daily, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Council members can cut funding from the budget but can’t allocate it to other areas or add money. Voters approved a charter change that gives them those additional powers, but it doesn’t go into effect until July 2022.
All hearings are open to the public to attend virtually and will be livestreamed.
Testimony will be taken only at a council taxpayers’ night on May 27, but Henry said residents can speak up in other ways.
“Nothing keeping you from reaching out to your council person and having them reach out for you,” he said.
This article has been updated to reflect that funding for some health department programs will decrease due to lower funding from the state and federal governments, even though the city plans to increase amount of city dollars spent on those issues.