Youth fund among 11 mea­sures

But crit­ics say vot­ers aren’t be­ing told how the money will be over­seen or spent

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Yvonne Wenger

Bal­ti­more officials are ask­ing vot­ers to let them set aside mil­lions of tax dol­lars in a spe­cial fund for youth ac­tiv­i­ties and pro­grams. But vot­ers aren’t be­ing told how officials will over­see the fund or dis­trib­ute its money.

City Council Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion that put the ques­tion on the Novem­ber bal­lot, says in­vest­ing more money in chil­dren and teens is key to im­prov­ing Bal­ti­more.

The fund is one of 11 bal­lot ques­tions to be put to Bal­ti­more vot­ers in Novem­ber. Officials are also ask­ing vot­ers to ap­prove bonds for school con­struc­tion, park and li­brary main­te­nance and eco­nomic devel- op­ment; per­mis­sion for out­door eat­ing stands at the In­ner Har­bor’s Rash Field and West Shore Park; the cre­ation of an af­ford­able-hous­ing trust fund; and more fre­quent au­dits of city agen­cies.

The youth fund mea­sure — “Ques­tion E” on the bal­lot — would com­mit the city to set­ting aside more than $11 mil­lion a year. That’s on top of the nearly $375

mil­lion the city al­ready spends on schools, prekinder­garten, af­ter-school pro­grams, li­braries and youth health ser­vices.

While youth ad­vo­cates say more read­ing en­rich­ment pro­grams, safe zones and or­ga­nized sports are needed in the city, govern­ment watch­dog groups warn that cre­at­ing a spe­cial fund with­out ac­count­abil­ity could in­vite “mis­chief.”

“It is a le­git­i­mate con­cern, if this fund is go­ing to be es­tab­lished, that it have a rig­or­ous set of con­trols,” said Christo­pher Sum­mers, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive­lean­ing Mary­land Pub­lic Policy In­sti­tute.

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake has said cre­at­ing such a fund would be fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble. She ve­toed the leg­is­la­tion, an ac­tion the council unan­i­mously over­rode.

Ded­i­cat­ing tax dol­lars for the new fund would tie the hands of fu­ture may­ors, Rawl­ings-Blake has ar­gued, and in tight bud­get years could force cuts to core city ser­vices. She called the ef­fort “feel-good, elec­tion-year spend­ing promises.”

City fi­nance direc­tor Henry Ray­mond says the ad­min­is­tra­tion stands ready to help es­tab­lish the fund if vot­ers ap­prove its cre­ation — in­clud­ing adding mea­sures to en­sure full ac­count­abil­ity so any pro­grams that re­ceive tax dol­lars achieve re­sults.

The city’s con­tri­bu­tion to the fund would

Pro­posed char­ter amend­ments

Bal­ti­more vot­ers will be asked to ap­prove 10 bal­lot ques­tions, in­clud­ing several char­ter amend­ments.

Should the city amend the char­ter to award more con­tracts to local, small and dis­ad­van­taged busi­nesses? The pro­posal is in­tended to help steer busi­ness to Bal­ti­more-based com­pa­nies to spur eco­nomic growth.

Should more out­door cafes be au­tho­rized at the In­ner Har­bor’s West Shore Park and Rash Field?

Should city agen­cies be au­dited ev­ery two years? A pre­vi­ous char­ter amend­ment ap­proved in 2012 re­quires the city to con­duct both fi­nan­cial and per­for­mance au­dits of 13 key agen­cies ev­ery four years, al­though few have been com­pleted so far.

Should the city amend the char­ter to cre­ate an af­ford­able-hous­ing trust fund to build and main­tain homes that ex­tremely low-in­come res­i­dents can af­ford? Estab­lish­ing the fund would be the first step; ad­vo­cates still must per­suade city officials to put money in it. be de­ter­mined by the value of its as­sess­able prop­erty. The lat­est es­ti­mate of the city’s as­sess­able base is $37.9 bil­lion, which would mean $11.4 mil­lion for the youth fund.

If the fund is ap­proved, Young plans to push leg­is­la­tion that would cre­ate a com­mit­tee to review ap­pli­ca­tions. Young says he wants mem­bers of the pub­lic — in­clud­ing youths — to help de­cide how that money is spent. He says he plans to cre­ate a task force that would so­licit in­put from the pub­lic on how to use the money

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said it makes sense to wait un­til af­ter vot­ers ap­prove the fund to ask for com­mu­nity feed­back on how it should work and de­cid­ing how to dis­trib­ute fu­ture grants, tak­ing one step at a time.

But Jen­nifer Be­van-Dan­gel, direc­tor of Com­mon Cause Mary­land, said writ­ing leg­is­la­tion to gov­ern the fund be­fore Novem­ber would give vot­ers more con­fi­dence in how the money would be spent.

“At a min­i­mum, have the leg­is­la­tion drafted to show in­tent, ready for pub­lic review so peo­ple know what they’re vot­ing on,” Be­van-Dan­gel said.

Be­van-Dan­gel noted that bal­lot ques­tions pro­posed in Bal­ti­more are of­ten ap­proved. She called it a “cul­ture of yes” among vot­ers that is not con­sis­tently seen else­where in the coun­try.

Jaime Ali­son Lee, direc­tor of the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Clinic at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, said the youth fund could be seen as an op­por­tu­nity to give the pub­lic more di­rect con­trol of spend­ing.

“If it’s done well, it can be really pow­er­ful,” Lee said.

Lee said Young’s vi­sion for the youth fund is in line with “par­tic­i­pa­tory bud­get­ing” that is be­ing used in cities across the coun­try to in­clude the pub­lic in de­ci­sions about how tax dol­lars are spent.

Lee said vot­ers must stay on top of the youth fund to en­sure spend­ing is trans­par­ent and “promises of par­tic­i­pa­tion aren’t ul­ti­mately so wa­tered down that they are just to­kenism.”

Shawn Grime runs the Dig­i­tal Har­bor Foun­da­tion, which serves about 1,500 Bal­ti­more youths a year.

“This is a huge op­por­tu­nity; it’s a pre­ven­ta­tive ac­tion, rather than a re­sponse to the symp­toms of crime or other is­sues,” Grimes said.

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