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Baltimore City Council hears calls for renter protections and library funding during annual Taxpayers Night

Residents had two minutes each Thursday to tell the 14-member Baltimore City Council what they like and don’t like about Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4.4 billion budget proposal. Dozens spoke up at City Hall — this year’s event was fully in-person for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

The session was the second of two taxpayer nights. The first was hosted by the Board of Estimates last month, and in many ways echoed the pleas from April where many demanded more funding for rental assistance and housing stability programs.

Those demands got louder on Thursday. Baltimore Renters United is calling for $25 million in emergency rental assistance. Samantha Gowing, a lawyer and activist, told the council that money could keep 8,000 people in their homes, many of which are families led by Black women.

“Other neighboring cities have committed rental assistance. Philly has committed 30 million and DC is also working on committing rental assistance funding,” said Gowing. “This is crucial for Baltimore renters in this moment.”

Evictions are climbing to pre-pandemic highs in Maryland but the federal emergency rental assistance funds authorized by Congress in the beginning of the pandemic are running dry; cities and states must fill the gap. Baltimore has added $5 million in assistance so far.

Housing advocates also asked for another $1.6 million to implement the city’s new ‘right to counsel law’ that connects tenants in eviction court with a lawyer. They also want the city to increase funding for housing inspectors to make sure buildings are safe and up to code.

Dozens of residents voiced support of those demands and called on the council to allocate more funds to various types of housing assistance. Christina Flowers has worked with unhoused people in Baltimore for years and pleaded with the Council to understand the magnitude of the problem.

“You walk into our shelters right now. We have seniors in wheelchairs and disabled devices stacked up in a day room… [it’s] My aunty, your granny, your Nana. It’s everybody. It’s disgraceful,” said Flowers.

The council also heard from librarians in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system and members of the Pratt Workers United, the library bargaining unit.

The mayor’s budget proposal includes around $2 million of cuts for the library system.

“The library budget is one of the smaller departmental budgets. And that means that increases and decreases, which might not look very important in a big department, would definitely be noticed,” said David Yaffee with the Pratt Workers United.

Librarians said cuts not only threaten programming but will strain a system that is already understaffed.

Advocates also came out to demand money for the skate park in West Baltimore’s Easterwood Park, for which the city allocated funds of $300,000 in 2020 and then an additional $350,000 in 2021, but then the project was halted for reasons that remain unclear.

Skatepark advocates argue that the park is an equity issue. They say there are no skateparks in Baltimore’s predominantly Black neighborhoods and that during a time when youth gun violence is a major concern, youth need safe outlets.

“Our Black children do not have the same resources, do not have the same support system as our white children,” said Chrissy “Sossi” Brown, a Baltimore skateboarder.

Historically, concerns about police funding have dominated taxpayers’ night conversations. This year, the city’s contribution to the police budget remains stagnant and includes five new civilian positions for the victim’s services team. But some residents like Dr. Terry Fitzgerald think the police are still getting too much.

“You can keep pouring money each year into the Baltimore Police Department system. But if you do not make fundamental changes, rethink what public safety means and rebuild the system from the ground up. Then you will end up with the same police department that murdered Freddie Gray,” said Washington.

The city has only a modest amount of discretionary spending this year after revenues rose less than expected, which officials say is due to inflation.

Baltimore City also has to pay an unexpected $79 million in school funding due to a change in the formula under the state’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Officials did not expect such a steep increase so quickly.

This budget is also historic because this year the city council now has the power to make cuts and additions, something they have not been able to do in over a century.

But Councilmember Eric Costello, who oversees the ways and means committee, couldn’t say what those additions or cuts, if any, would look like. Agency hearings are next.

“We have like 78 hours worth of budget hearings over a six day period. So, you know, looking forward to going into that and learning as much as we can… [we’ll] have a better idea as we get closer to the end of that.”

The council must pass a balanced budget by June 26th.

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the skatepark in Easterwood Park was only budgeted for funds in 2021. That was incorrect. The city allocated money in 2020 and 2022. ***

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
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