Scott Announces New Initiatives At First State Of The City Address
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott used his first State of the City speech Thursday night to announce several major new initiatives, address challenges and tout his accomplishments throughout his first 100 days in office.
“Our challenges require a new vision and a new generation of leadership that is committed to bringing people together no matter the cost,” Scott said. “It is not about simply doing what is popular, but doing what is right.”
The address is usually held in City Hall before the council and agency heads; due to the coronavirus pandemic, Scott delivered his livestreamed remarks at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens before an audience consisting only of staffers.
Scott, 36, reiterated the campaign promises that allowed him to claw to the top of a crowded Democratic mayoral primary last year: “You deserve a mayor that says what they mean, and means what they say, and I set out to govern as such, with transparency, integrity and accountability,” he said.
It was the first such address in two years. Former Mayor Jack Young cancelled his State of the City speech in mid-March of last year, when the pandemic was in its early days.
Roger Hartley, the dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said Scott used the speech as a narrative that emphasized restoring trust in government after a slew of recent political scandals by framing himself as an efficient, hands-on mayor.
“I think he and his team wanted to show, ‘Look, I'm at the wheel here. I am an action mayor, I've taken command of the city, I've gotten some things accomplished here in a very tough time,’ ” Hartley said.
Scott announced that he has directed the Department of Finance to ensure that no Baltimoreans lose their homes in the upcoming tax sale, after lobbying from members of the City Council and housing advocates to cancel the sale altogether.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who has led the charge against the sale, said she was excited about Scott’s commitment to homeowners, but that “we don’t have any details about what his statement means.”
“Homeowners don’t lose their homes during the May tax lien sale, they lose them once an investor buys the lien and goes after the homeowner,” she said. “I look forward to the details.”
Hartley called Scott’s announcement an attempt to balance the money the tax sale may bring the city, with the enormous consequences of Baltimoreans losing their homes.
“Of course, the city has an enormous deficit,” Hartley said. “On the other hand… some could see this as a chink in the armor of city government, because it provides arguably less equity if people are losing their homes.”
Scott also made public an upcoming Executive Order to suspend pre-employment drug screenings for city employees in non-safety sensitive positions.
“That's a good step to take, in terms of removing barriers for people to gain employment,” said Lawrence Brown, an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Population Health Institute. He is the author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, a 2021 book that dissects decades of racist urban policies such as redlining in Baltimore.
Brown said the mayor should go deeper and talk not solely about jobs but also about building a “solidarity economy” of cooperatives and community gardens with opportunities that don’t require degrees or extensive training.
Scott also announced that he will reopen rec centers on April 5 and issue a local language access mandate in the next few weeks that will require city agencies to provide access to service in languages other than English.
A “top-to-bottom assessment of city agencies” and processes to inventory city property is in the works, as well as an update to Baltimore’s 10-year financial plan, he said.
And soon, Scott said, he will launch Open Checkbook, an online portal in which residents can search and view city expenditures.
In recapping his first 100 days in office, Scott touted a mix of accomplishments both highly visible and concerned with the minutiae of city operations that he framed as “governing from the ground up.”
He pointed to victories apparent to any city resident: the resumed curbside collection of recycling after a six-month pause and efficient snow plow operations during a weeks-long period of winter weather.
Scott highlighted less visible moves, such as the ongoing implementation of the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, a law that mandates that Baltimore City agencies take a trauma-informed approach in interactions with residents. He also noted his ongoing reform of the city procurement process, which aims to make attaining city contracts more feasible for women- and Black-owned city businesses.
He touted the creation of new, high-level positions at City Hall: Chief Equity Officer and Director of Broadband and Digital Equity. The former, Dana Moore, is responsible for applying an equity lens to every aspect of city governance. The latter, yet to be named, is tasked with the expansion of high-speed, affordable internet access.
Brown said that Moore and the Scott administration may be able to build real, transformative change if her office takes account of the concrete ways that segregation still exists in Baltimore by confronting problems like lead poisoning, which affects predominantly Black residents.
“Segregation is not just a thing of the past — it’s still going on,” Brown said. “When [Scott] talks about violence, it's not just street level violence. There has to be a discussion about structural violence and how the city, how the mayors of the past, how the city council members of the past have played a role.”
There was no shortage of challenges for Scott to acknowledge. He generally held off on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s violence epidemic until the end of his speech.
The mayor took office in December of last year, as COVID-19 rates crept toward an all-time high and the financial impact of the pandemic continued to wallop residents. He acknowledged that he was forced to make tough decisions, such as restricting restaurants to carry-out operations only during a winter peak of COVID-19 rates. But those decisions led to decreases in cases, he said.
“I want you to understand tonight that each and every decision related to COVID-19 was made out of my love for the people,” Scott said.
Since March 2020, the city has delivered more than 8 million meals and 18 million pounds of boxed groceries and issued $6 million in direct food assistance and $740,000 in community food grants. Scott launched the city’s first cash assistance program, which distributes prepaid debit cards.
As of Wednesday, 17.2% of city residents have received at least one vaccine dose. Scott pledged to expand the city’s mobile and community-based vaccination efforts to reach residents where they are. To date, he said, 80% of the vaccines administered by mobile vaccination units have gone to Black Baltimoreans.
He called the $670 million in federal money from Congress’ recent relief act “a historic investment in Baltimore’s future” and pledged to prioritize the money to get Baltimoreans working again, aid local businesses recover and invest in people and places that have been left out due to inequitable policies of the past.
“There's a lot of room under those three priorities,” the University of Baltimore's tHartley said. “Mayor Scott, I think, and his team and the city council to work together on this and quickly identify initiatives so that those funds can have the best impact.”
Scott said his administration is working closely with local agencies for equitable, transparent and expeditious distribution of the funds.
Brown said the mayor could maximize the relief money’s ability to bolster equity by paying grassroots leaders to steer vaccine distribution efforts to Black communities.
“You know, we're in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “So you need community health workers: another community enhancing strategy. I would hire 5,000 community health workers… to make sure people in Black Butterfly neighborhoods are getting vaccinated” and assess community needs overall.
Scott inherited a city grappling with a heartbreaking scourge of violence. Last year, 335 people in Baltimore lost their lives to violence. Less than four months into 2021, 57 Baltimoreans have died.
Dante Barksdale was one of them. The activist, an ex-convict who helped lead the violence intervention group Safe Streets, crusaded against gun violence until he was shot and killed in January. Police have not publicly identified a suspect.
“My heart breaks whenever I think about Dante. And it breaks again and again and again each time another life is ruthlessly cut short,” Scott said.
“This frequency of violence has plagued communities across Baltimore for as long as I have been alive,” he continued. “Too many of us for too long have known someone who was killed. Too often, this perpetual pain is part of the Black experience growing up in Baltimore.”
He called violent crime Baltimore’s biggest challenge and said reducing it remains his top priority.
Scott recapped ongoing efforts to strengthen accountability and oversight: PoliceStat meetings with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison every other week, monthly updates on consent decree milestones to increase community engagement and a recent partnership with Everytown For Gun Safety to analyze the flow of illegal guns into the city.
He pointed to his creation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which will work on implementing his violence reduction strategy plan. That plan centers on community trust, substance abuse treatment and trauma-informed care.
Scott announced he requested that Gov. Larry Hogan restart the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which the Republican defunded in 2017. The state-funded workgroup of city and state officials, prosecutors, judges and police previously worked together to formulate policy, plans and programs for improving courts, jails and treatment programs.
“We look forward to working with the Governor and his team to make that happen,” Scott said.
He also announced that he will introduce a bill to reduce the number of false alarm calls that require a police response.
“Right now, Baltimore residents are allowed to make as many as 15 false alarm calls to BPD before the police stop responding,” he said. “Each of these calls take an average of 15 minutes of officer time. That’s time that officers are not spending on the calls that demand the most urgent response.”
Thousands of 911 calls each year are for people who are in crisis, Scott said, and they should receive a response from a clinician, not a police officer. He said his administration will soon implement a 911 diversion pilot program to ensure that emergency services send the most appropriate resources for each call.
He said the program is similar to legislation from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, which would create grants that would allow for the dispatch of professionals trained in mental and behavioral health or crisis response instead of law enforcement.
Brown said the mayor’s emphasis on social and economic opportunity and willingness to divert funds away from the police is a significant rhetorical shift.
“I think that framework is there now,” he said. “How well will it be materialized is the question.”
Hartley noted that the program will likely be viewed as a victory by city residents of varying political stripes. “It appeals to those who want efficiency, it appeals to those that want to save the time for police to focus on severe crimes and it also appeals to people who want more of a holistic approach to the problems like drug abuse,” he said.
Scott ended his speech with the same call to action heard in his inaugural speech.
“Though I am committed to bettering the city for all of its residents, I recognize that I cannot do it alone,” he said. “You have the power to shape how things are done.”
This article has been updated.