One of Baltimore’s most passionate and best prepared citizen activists led the way Wednesday at the annual Taxpayers’ Night, lambasting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other members of the Board of Estimates over a proposed 2013 city budget she said shortchanges children and neighborhoods.
“This is a foul budget,” said activist Kim Trueheart. “You’ve offended us. You’ve offended our children.”
Sitting silently before an audience of about 50 people (nearly half of them city officials and media), the board’s members, including Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, let the sometimes scorching comments of a half-dozen speakers go unanswered.
That’s the usual scenario for this yearly ritual, required by the city charter as part of the budget process, which continues through June 25th, when the City Council is required to pass a balanced budget.
Held at the War Memorial Building across from City Hall, Taxpayer Night typically features pleas on behalf of axed or shrunken budget items and critiques of misplaced priorities.
This year Trueheart supplied plenty of both.
“You Aren’t Even Close”
“This disinvestment in our rec centers has to stop, okay!?” Trueheart said, referring to the mayor’s controversial plan to close as many as eight city recreation centers and give others to private groups or, in the latest effort, to Baltimore City Public Schools.
The rec center consolidation, along with announced plans to close seven small public pools this summer, are among the belt-tightening measures implicit in the $2.3 billion operating budget Rawlings-Blake is proposing amid a $48 million deficit.
Trueheart also decried the mayor’s plan to cut 30 after-school programs.
She noted that at an election forum last summer, the mayor promised to double funding for after-school programs and to support recreation centers and other youth and neighborhood programs.
“You aren’t even close to what you promised,” she said, as Rawlings-Blake looked down and occasionally glanced at the microphone where Trueheart stood facing her fiercely.
Another speaker, Leon Bailey, pleaded with Rawlings-Blake to “please don’t cut rec centers.”
“I became a responsible person at the McKim Community Center,” Bailey said. “It played an important part in my life.”
Carolyn Wainwright, a member of the Recreation and Parks Department advisory board, said she and other board members are “frustrated” by the imminent closure of pools and rec centers.
She called for the city to do an audit of the department and get new leadership. (Last month, Gregory Bayer announced his resignation as agency director after less than two years at the post.)
Fiery Speech and Fire Station Warning
Neighborhoods, one speaker said, will be the victim of another part of the budget – the plan to permanently close three fire companies. Earlier this month, the city fire chief identified two ladder truck and one engine company he plans to shut down.
“The closures will compromise safety across the city,” said John Burke, secretary treasurer of IAFF Local 734. Baltimore’s population decline doesn’t mean fewer firefighters are needed, Burke said before the meeting.
“The square miles never change, we still have 96 square miles to cover,” Burke said. “People don’t burn – buildings do.”
One of the evening’s most fiery speakers was not there in person. Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign, sent in written testimony, which was read by Young.
“We fear that the budget ratifies the status quo, deepening structural racism and fostering crime as a direct result of a failing city,” Ferebee wrote.
Ferebee asked the board to “please include the list of outcomes you expect from your decisions.”
“How many more babies will be born healthy, how far will infant mortality decline, what will be the increase in children entering school ready to learn; how many fewer incidences of disruption at the harbor place; how many graduating seniors will have bank accounts and a positive credit score,” she asked.
More withering remarks came from Tom Kiefaber, former owner of the Senator Theatre, who spent his time at the microphone blasting the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) for its “backroom deals.”
The agency should be independently audited, Kiefaber told the board, if not “disbanded or revamped so it doesn’t allow for this type of shadow government.”
Deficits and Doomsday
In her remarks welcoming citizens to the event, Rawlings-Blake talked about the challenge of balancing the city’s books.
She stressed not only the deficit but the extra squeeze the city would feel if the state were to enact the so-called “doomsday budget” produced in the waning days of an especially discordant legislative session in Annapolis.
“Unless the state acts to reverse the cuts, an additional $20.2 million in cuts will be added to the city’s preliminary budget, along with approximately $22 million in cuts to the Baltimore City Public School System’s budget,” Rawlings-Blake said, reading prepared remarks.
“The potential city cuts resulting from the state budget include canceling academy classes to hire new police officers and/or layoffs, cutting violent crime and gun prosecutors, and reinstating the furlough program for city employees, which was scheduled to be phased-out this year,” the mayor continued.
Transparent? Or Obscure?
Many speakers critiqued the budget process itself, saying the Taxpayers Night event was poorly advertised and that information about the spending plan is not easy to find online.
“I am very interested in the budget – I organized 40 people to come to a budget exercise in February – but I didn’t learn about this until a couple of days ago,” said Mike McGuire, an activist involved in the Occupy Baltimore action.
“I was combing through the website to find it out,” he said, speaking to city budget director Andrew Kleine before the event began. “Did you advertise the date?”
Kleine said the city followed the advertisement requirements specified in the city charter, including an ad in the Baltimore Sun in January.
Council President Young, who sits as the president of the Board of Estimates, apparently overheard their conversation.
“A lot of people seem to think we wasn’t advertising this,” Young said to the audience. “We tried to be as transparent as possible.”
“I disagree,” Trueheart said, when her turn came to speak. She said city officials have shown “no real interest” in engaging the public. “What’s wrong with email? What’s wrong with Facebook?” she asked.
Trueheart also asked officials why there was no copy of the proposed capital budget online, “just a summary.” (Pressed on this point before the meeting began, Kleine had told Trueheart, “If it’s not there it should be,” and promised to check on the matter.)
After two people (McGuire and activist Casey McKeel) yielded their allotted two-minute speaking time to her, Trueheart was able to return several times to the microphone to make more remarks.
Advocating more budget support for neighborhoods, children and fiscal oversight (“the Legislative Reference budget is decreasing by 5%?”), she recommended less for police (“get rid of that inflated police budget”) and the BDC (“nobody’s building nothing!”).
As the meeting broke up, participants asked Young when the City Council would hold its version of Taxpayers Night. He promised that the date would be announced at the April 30th Council meeting.
McGuire urged Young to use social networks to spread the word about subsequent budget events more effectively.
“I ‘like’ you on Facebook. I ‘like’ the mayor,” he said. “But I didn’t hear anything about this.”