When it comes to budgets, Joe Biden has a useful expression: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Attributed to his father, it was a line the former VP trotted out during campaign seasons. Yet it’s easy to see how it can hold true just as easily in the halls of governing as it can at the rally podium: With limited resources, it’s necessary to prioritize.
Put that into the cauldron of a crisis, where funds are even tighter, and the need for those values to serve as a guiding light through the cloud of uncertainty can become even more pronounced, especially as revenues decline. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also means that effects are happening globally and assumptions that were true in February may no longer hold up.
It’s leading, as a subheading in Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s latest budget proposal puts it, to “tough choices.”
Presented on Wednesday, the $3.8 billion proposal for fiscal year 2021 was a big change from the pre-March plans the City had in mind.
“Due to the economic hardships and financial pressures placed upon Baltimore city by the COVID-19 pandemic, this budget literally had to be rewritten in a month from scratch,” Young said in a City Hall news conference after presenting the spending plan to the city’s Board of Estimates. “This was an incredibly difficult budgeting process. Every city and county in the country are facing difficult budgetary discussions and Baltimore is no different from any of them.”
Areas such as education and support for children and families remained funded, with $400 million on public schools, which is a record.
In the local example of how the slowdown that’s happening across the global economy from social distancing restrictions is playing out in a city, Baltimore is losing $20 million per month from the downturn in taxes, tourism and traffic and tickets that fund city government, per the Baltimore Sun. In all, Young said it had to trim $103.1 million from revenue projections.
“So far, our instinct is that the fiscal outlook could be devastating.” wrote budget director Robert Cenname in a memo accompanying the proposal.
That means cutting back in a way that will affect the people and departments of city government. Young said he is seeking to avoid layoffs and, on first read, it doesn’t appear to include proposals to cut entire departments like our sister publication in Philly reported that nearby city’s mayor is proposing.
But the administration is proposing to cut 240 vacant positions, and has proposals in to labor unions that could mean a pay freeze or furloughs. The administration also wants to renegotiate benefit plans; reorganize police units traveling in helicopter, horse and traffic; and reassign personnel from two fire department companies. The graffiti removal service is proposed to be eliminated. The city’s Mobile Workforce Center, unveiled in 2018, would also stop operating.
Yet the administration also sought to present a budget that makes room to fund priorities, and fund preparations of its systems and people for the future where it could.
Areas such as education and support for children and families remained funded, with $400 million on public schools, which is a record. There is an additional $100 million for spending on youth programs, including for the summer employment program YouthWorks, which has served as an onramp for students to gain digital and entrepreneurial skills while earning over the summer. And as if to underscore the point, the press conference on Wednesday included the presentation of a big check for $3 million to Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises that she said will allow the district to purchase 3,500 devices and expand internet access for students who face a lack of connectivity. The expenditure from the city’s Children and Youth Fund was passed by the City Council last week.
“What sets us apart, however, is the fact that even in the face of financial pressures, our commitment to our children and families is rock solid. The budget I presented makes very clear that Baltimore values its children, older adults, and most vulnerable residents. Even with the economic downturn, I believe that this is a smart and realistic budget,” Young said.
The proposed budget includes $10 million for IT infrastructure projects like data warehouse upgrades, new cable and wiring and new cybersecurity tools.
With an investment of $205.9 million across multiple departments, the area dubbed “Innovative Government” was also made a priority, among others, as a news release said Young “decided it critically important to also invest in innovative solutions to the tough challenges that cities like Baltimore face.” This includes $10 million for IT infrastructure projects like data warehouse upgrades, new cable and wiring and new cybersecurity tools. The latter follows last year’s cyber attack. The city is also planning to implement a new system that automates human resources functions, called an Enterprise Resource Planning system.
There’s also some move toward generating revenue: Two projects, a digital sign on the Baltimore Convention Center and Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks’ zero-waste wood salvaging initiative Camp Small, respectively, could have potential to generate revenue. The rec department’s zero-waste initiative Camp Small would get an investment of $2.1 million from the city’s innovation fund. Further details weren’t available.
Arts and cultural institutions also continued to receive funding, and $42 million for the housing department’s community development framework remained in place. And there’s $608 million for water and treatment projects.
But there are signs of the choices made, as other priorities had to be scaled back. The budget proposal includes funding for two Baltimore Community Intelligence Centers for the Baltimore Police Department, but plans for five others were put on hold. The Charm City Circulator would get a $1.6 million cut and is no longer getting more buses as once planned. And one line item in the proposal states other new initiatives were put on hold altogether.
It’s not yet a done deal, as the proposal will now go to the City Council. And the City said negotiations with unions are still continuing. The push for funding also continues, as Young this week joined with other local government leaders from the region to call on the federal government to provide aid for cities. And politics will likely come into view, as the process plays out with a primary election where the current mayor and City Council president are candidates coming up on June 2.
There will be tradeoffs, and potentially even more cuts. A budgeting process is always a matter of weighing priorities, and now there is the local fallout of a global crisis to navigate. It’s a time to consider both the structural realities and a government’s role of providing for its people.
Still, it’s worth paying attention to what gets funded, too. In the end, the tough moments tend to reveal what folks value.-30-