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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter12:09 pmSep 24, 20200

With $6M taken out for debit cards, has Baltimore’s Youth Fund become a City Hall slush fund?

The fund transfer may aid struggling families in the short run, but it undermines the goals of a program sold to voters as a way to help children and strengthen Black-led organizations. [ANALYSIS]

Above: Baltimore voters were told that Children & Youth Fund monies would exclusively serve the young. (bcyfund.org)

Yesterday Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young raided the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund, removing $6 million from its coffers.

The money will provide one-time cash assistance to low-income residents who have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis – a mission that, while worthy, has little to do with why voters were urged (by Young) to establish the fund in the first place.

As enshrined in Article 1, Section 13 of the City Charter, BCYF money is “to be used exclusively for the purposes of establishing new and augmenting existing programs for and services to the children and youth of this City.”

Asked how that language comports with the mayor’s cash assistance program, his spokesman, James E. Bentley II, said, “When you talk of youth, you talk of families. We’re dealing with a situation that’s driven by need.”

A few have questioned the program, though none who approved it yesterday on the Board of Estimates whose members include Baltimore’s lame duck mayor and Baltimore’s presumptive next mayor, Brandon M. Scott.

One was civic activist Melissa Schober, who tweeted the following:

melissa schober tweet on OSI

The Childless Included

The Children & Youth Fund will be used to supply $400 debit cards to roughly 15,000 residents who qualify as “low income or vulnerable,” which will include undocumented immigrants, residents with criminal records, the elderly, homeless persons and the LGBTQ community.

Children and teenagers are only peripherally part of the equation as described in the 38-page agreement signed by the city and its partner, the Open Society Institute – Baltimore.

Here are some of the provisions:

• Individuals without children can apply for the money, while those 16 and under cannot (unless they are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian).

• Only one person per family can apply for assistance, which makes for slim disbursements for families with many kids.

• While available to any city resident who meets income-eligibility requirements, seven zip codes will be prioritized. Those areas – encompassing Park Heights, Oliver/Broadway East, Cherry Hill, Parkside/Harford, Edmondson/Irvington, Brooklyn/Curtis Bay, and Highlandtown – were designated as “food insecure” or with high rates of Covid cases.

• Handing out debit cards will be the task of nine “disbursing and managing organizations” working with OSI. Among them: the Central Scholarship Bureau, which normally provides support for student career training; CASA of Maryland, an immigrant-resources group; Elev8 Baltimore, a family outreach center; and Banner Neighborhoods, an East Baltimore nonprofit.

• The debit card is intended to be used only for necessities such as groceries, cleaning supplies, baby care products, over-the-counter medicines and PPE.

• Cash withdrawals will be restricted, and the cards will be computer-programmed so they can’t be accepted by liquor stores, casinos, florists, medical labs, opticians or even “snowmobile dealers.”

Why not Rainy Day Funds?

Several people have asked why the city didn’t use other revenue sources to help struggling residents rather than deplete those of the unique and ambitious Children & Youth Fund.

“I would have preferred the funds come from the Rainy Day Fund or reallocating money from the Baltimore City Police Department,” Councilman Zeke Cohen, who heads the Council’s Education and Youth Committee, told The Brew yesterday.

Civic activist Schober has been more blunt, tweeting: “We were promised [BCYF funds] would be directed to Black and Brown-led organizations; that dollars would go to community-led initiatives.”

In another tweet, she said, “I fully support cash payments to struggling folks in Baltimore. That said, this is NOT what people voted on in 2016. We were promised a set-aside to support children and youth, who receive a pittance of the city’s about $3 billion budget.”

“We were promised a set-aside to support children and youth, who receive a pittance of the city’s about $3 billion budget”  – Melissa Schober.

A week ago, the Young administration took $25 million from the Rainy Day Fund to plug revenue shortages arising from the pandemic.

Even after the withdrawals, the Rainy Day Fund retains a $120 million surplus, plenty enough to help residents who are encountering food insecurity.

But the budget office has determined that taking more out of the fund – not to speak of shifting money from police to food banks – would be detrimental. In fact, the Young administration last week tried buy 12 high-tech sniper rifles for the police until a  public outcry halted the transaction.

City law specifies what the money in the Children & Youth Fund is to be used for. (Baltimore City Charter, Article 1, Section 13)

Cash assistance for needy adults is not one of the six programs and services set forth for the Children Fund. (Baltimore City Charter Article 1, Section 13)

Because It Was There

So how did the children’s money wind up as a $400-a-pop giveaway program for the generally needy?

Mostly because it was sitting in the city’s coffers, ripe for the picking.

The BCYF was the brainchild of Mayor Young when he was City Council president. Following the civic unrest of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, Young championed a plan to provide community-initiated funding directly benefiting young people in needy neighborhoods.

In 2016, voters approved the establishment of a permanent fund that would receive at least $0.03 for every $100 of assessed property value. Since then, the fund has received $37,357,000, according to the city finance department.

Associated Black Charities was given the task (again by Young) to administer grants before the fund could be formally organized. In 2018, ABC disbursed $10.8 million to 84 organizations, while keeping about $2 million for administrative and consultant costs.

Earlier this year, ABC awarded additional funds to grassroots groups, the total of which is not clear from the sketchy financial information that the city has made publicly available.

The bottom line, however, was that there was $17,757,015 left in the fund last April.

Jack Young, an alumnus of Dunbar High, is flanked by the Dunbar marching band at Saturday's campaign kickoff. He is holding his granddaughter, Madison, and is seated next to his wife, Darlene. (Mark Reutter)

Holding his granddaughter on his lap, Jack Young is surrounded by the Dunbar High School Marching Band before he formally announced his candidacy for mayor last October. (Mark Reutter)

Pandemic Politics

Not only was a pandemic battering the city last April, but Young and City Council President Scott were vying to become the next mayor in the June 2 Democratic primary.

Faced with shrinking revenues and a general clamor to do something to help unemployed and ill citizens, the Children & Youth Fund stood out to City Hall’s leaders like a ready solution.

A Council bill, to establish a permanent BCYF board and structure, made it possible. First, the Council agreed to divert $3 million from the fund to City Schools, which would help them pay for Chromebooks and internet access for public school students.

“I believe its [BCYF’s] mission of supporting small, grassroots nonprofits – but its mission can and should be adopted to meet the present need,” Scott explained, while Councilman Cohen lauded the Chromebook expenditure as a way to close the “digital divide” between rich and poor families.

This left a bigger piece of the youth pie to Young, who was keen last April on formulating a “food access strategy” through his Office of Children & Family Success.

So the City Council allocated another $6 million from the BCYF to Young’s office, and Children & Family Success Director Tisha Edwards got to work creating the cash assistance program announced yesterday.

A LiUNA truck parked at Druid Hill Park to promote mayoral candidate Brandon Scott. (Fern Shen)

A truck parked at Druid Hill Park before the June 2 primary promoted Brandon Scott. The truck is owned by the Laborers’ International Union. (Fern Shen)

A Start Up Delay

In its written agreement, the cash assistance program set for itself an aggressive schedule – registering 15,000 people between now and November 6, when the online platform for registration would be closed, according to documents reviewed by The Brew.

Already the schedule has been delayed. Bentley said yesterday that applications won’t start to get processed until mid-October “due to the fact that we are still working through some technical details.” The cut-off date for registration has not been announced.

Debit cards will be given to “eligible individuals who are connected to or recruited by a community partner organization.”

Under the program, selecting the people who will get the debit cards is a complex process involving both informal and formal “referral organizations” that will work with the “disbursing and managing organizations,” all under the umbrella of OSI.

The agreement stipulates that priority for debit cards will be given to “eligible individuals who are connected to or recruited by a community partner organization.”

The agreement doesn’t specify what will happen to those not “connected to or recruited by” a partner organization, such as homeless children or the shut-in elderly.

The partner organizations will have “full responsibility” for managing the cash assistance program, doing the screening of applicants, while NDWA Labs will handle online services and its partner, Usio, Inc., will mail out debit cards to qualifying applicants.

Cumbersome Process

Here are the steps involved in distributing the cards, as outlined in the city/OSI agreement:

1. NDWA Labs distributes unique access codes to each community partner. The number of codes issued to each partner is based on a pre-determined agreement.

2. The community partner identifies potential recipients, determines eligibility based on criteria and selects eligible recipients. Each selected eligible recipient is given a unique code by the community partner.

3. The recipient completes a simple online application on the Alia Cares platform and inputs the unique code, which verifies eligibility.

4. NDWA Labs checks for fraud by reviewing for duplicate names, phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses.

5. NDWA Labs notifies Usio to issue a pre-paid debit card.

6. Usio mails the debit card to the recipient’s mailing address or to the community-based organization’s address if the recipient is unable to receive mail at a secure mailing address.

With such a system in place to screen potentially tens of thousands of city residents, what could possibly go wrong?
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• To reach this reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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