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City Residents, Comptroller Henry Slam Mayor Scott’s Proposed BPD Budget Increase At Taxpayers' Night

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Baltimore City Hall. On Taxpayers' Night, city residents and Comptroller Bill Henry slammed Mayor Brandon Scott's proposed budget.

After nearly a year of calls to defund the police amid nationwide protests for racial justice, Comptroller Bill Henry and dozens of Baltimore residents criticized Mayor Brandon Scott’s proposed budget increase for the city police department at Taxpayers’ Night.

“I understand the importance of providing continuity of service, but that shouldn't have to mean continuity of the status quo,” he said in his opening remarks Wednesday. “Plainly put, Baltimore City needs a budget which allocates less money to the police department and invests more money into our own people in their communities.”

The annual event, held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, allows Baltimoreans to provide their thoughts on the city’s proposed budget, which is released in April and finalized later in the spring. About 70 residents submitted public comments before the members of the Board of Estimates City's, the city's spending board, which includes Henry, Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Acting DPW Director Matthew Garbark.

The $3.6 billion proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 is slightly less than that of 2021. It would increase the police department’s s annual budget by $28 million to a total of $555 million. Scott defended the 5% raise, attributing it to obligatory benefits.

“This does not reflect the direction that I want to and that we will move in the future,” Scott said in his opening remarks. “We will work tirelessly to reimagine public safety in Baltimore. And we understand that in a city that's budgeted it has in my entire lifetime, it's going to take more than one fiscal year and it's going to take tough work ”

He said he is still committed to his campaign promise of reimagining public safety and pointed to a task force he announced earlier this month that will consist of government officials and community members and develop a five-year BPD budget reduction plan. Neither the task force’s name nor its members have been announced.

“To make those kind changes, we must be strategic and responsible, particularly as we continue to honor the performance of the federal consent decree without cutting corners on the police reform efforts that we all just celebrated in Annapolis,” Scott said.

His administration has framed the budget as one that secures continuity of services during a financially tumultuous year, in which some streams of revenue were substantially reduced to the pandemic. Fees from parking, hotels and tourism taxes, for example, came in shy of projections that were already bleak.

Henry pounced on that narrative minutes into the event, pointing to a 17% budget reduction for YouthWorks, the city’s youth employment program. He called it “the most graphic illustration of misplaced priorities.”

“We need to find a way to invest in people's lives to make it so that they don't have to commit crimes in order to survive,” he continued. “Better policing is only one part of public safety. Addressing poverty and other root causes of crime are substantially larger, and our budget should reflect such thinking.”

Budget director Bob Cenname clarified that the discrepancy in YouthWorks’ budget from 2021 to 2022 is not due to the city’s contributions to the program but to a state grant the program received last year but not this year. The city is expecting to provide 6,000 youth with jobs this year, a 20% increase from last year.

Every city resident who testified echoed the comptroller’s criticism. Residents traditionally use the event to voice their problems with the budget, but this year’s testimony was even fiercer than years prior. Many used their allotted two minutes to criticize Scott for increasing the BPD budget, despite his identity as a progressive.

Melissa Schober, a former member of city schools’ Parent and Community Advisory Board, lambasted Scott for allowing the BPD budget to increase, saying that the agency “willfully and continuously refuses to provide basic documentation in favor of any number of evidence-based and promising practices.”

"It should not be possible for a moral mayor to claim he embraces the best, highest use of our precious and scarce revenue on page 12 of the preliminary budget while increasing the budget for an agency that is floundering,” she said. “This budget values the familiar over either the technocratic or the moral. It accomplishes one thing: deep regret in casting my ballot for you.”

Several members of the activist group Organizing Black presented concrete demands to the Board of Estimates: cut $100 million from BPD’s fiscal year 2022 budget and redistribute $30 million to a community wellness trust and $70 million to support affordable housing, education, universal health care and a universal basic income program.

“The constant growth of this budget has not correlated into a decrease in crime or harm and has only increased surveillance and police violence in Black and brown communities,” Nnamdia Maney, a Park Heights resident, said.

Caitlin Goldblatt, a tenants’ right organizer and founder of Scan The Police, a Twitter account that documents police scanner chatter, said she’s worked with children poisoned by lead in city homes and those fighting evictions after reporting landlords for violating poor housing conditions.

“All this time I've listened to tenants tell me all the different ways in which cops have been no sense of no assistance to them,” she said.

Move funding from BPD to affordable housing, permanent housing of our neighbors experiencing homelessness and both security deposit and rental assistance for tenants would save lives, Goldblatt said.

Barbara Hall, a Medfield resident and member of Showing Up For Racial Justice Baltimore, recounted the comments that city police officers offered her after she was sexually assaulted.

“The first time that happened, the officer who took my report asked me why I had gone to the party. The second time it happened, the officer who came to the emergency room asked me if I really wanted to go through with filing a police report because it was just a case of he said she said,” she recalled. “The third time it happened, I didn't bother to call the police.”

There is no good reason, Hall said, to send an armed police officer to respond to sexual assault. She reiterated calls to move $100 million from BPD to community-led solutions.

Ava Hoodas, a business owner in South Baltimore, said there are bad officers and good officers. She urged the spending board to divest funding away from BPD for the sake of the latter: "The best thing you can do for good officers...is to invest in education and social programs that help lower crime,” she said. "From someone in the business community, please look into investing into education.”

Reservoir Hill resident O. Sahlong said he was disgusted with the “sycophantic and groveling nature of the City Council to the Fraternal Order of Police,” especially given BPD’s perceived failures.

“They don't stop crime while it's happening, or solve crime,” he said. “In fact, the police commit crime. The Gun Trace Task Force was galavating around our city, robbing citizens, planting weapons and looking dumb.”

Toward the end of public commentary, Remington resident Dave Heilker accomplished a feat of protest that is hard to accomplish during virtual meetings where speakers can be muted in a millisecond: he went over his allotted two minutes, reading the names of those killed by police within the last 12 months.

“I'll keep reading their names until you cut me off,” he said. After two minutes a city staffer began to tell him to stop, until Council President Mosby, the chair of the Board of Estimates, told him to continue.

The Democrat concluded the meeting shortly thereafter, thanking speakers for their input on the plan: “this is the initial start of the process, that’s why we’re calling it the preliminary FY22 budget. … This is truly the people’s business.”

City residents may continue to submit public commentary to the Board of Estimates until April 30. The current fiscal year ends June 30; the spending board must pass a final budget before then.

The budget, written over the winter, does not include the $670 million money that last month’s American Rescue Plan Act gave Baltimore City — a sum that Scott has framed as a historical investment. He has touted three priorities for the funds: putting residents back to work, aiding local businesses and investing “in people and places that have been left out due to inequitable policies of the past.”