There were tearful pleas, biblical references and a sharp exchange between City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and activist Kim Trueheart.
Some came to Taxpayers’ Night at Baltimore’s War Memorial Building last night to seek a reversal of specific program cuts – such as the $175,000 reduction in city funding that would threaten Experience Corps, which places senior citizen volunteers in city schools.
Others decried what they saw as too-high taxes, money wasted, spending unaudited – and connected the problem to painful program cuts and poor city services.
“I’m talking on behalf of single parents and people losing their houses because of water bills. They can’t take these increasing water bills and increased taxes,” said Deborah Davis, of southwest Baltimore.
“Where’s all that money going? Is it supposed to be going to the streets? To the schools? To the fire departments that are being closed?” she said, speaking to a group of about 150 people who came for the city’s annual charter-mandated public hearing on the budget.
“I Can’t Figure Out the Math”
Many made comparisons to Baltimore County. “We pay the highest taxes but get the least amount of services,” said Anthony Smith, to applause.
Cynthia Rogers-Swann, of Tremont, complained that people in the county pay one third of what she pays in water bills for households with two times more people: “I can’t figure out the math!”
One woman, Michelle Mitchell of Ashburton, broke down crying as she told the officials how the home she had inherited from her parents had gone to a tax sale over a property tax bill.
“I pay my bills on time,” she said, explaining a case that one of her supporters, Rhonda Wimbish, said had to do mostly with miscommunication by city agencies. (City Finance Director Harry E. Black, approached her after the meeting, gave her his card and said he would speak with her.)
Uh, WHAT Year is This?
The hearing is part of the process city government churns through each year to approve the budget, a $3.5 billion spending plan for 2014 that includes a $2.4 billion operating budget.
By tradition, none of the officials interact with the public.
“We are here to listen,” said Young, presiding over a group of officials that included Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt, Public Works Director Alfred Foxx, City Solicitor George Nilson and Budget Director Andrew Kleine.
Or, wait a minute, was it the 2013 budget they were working on?!
Activist Mike McGuire said he hadn’t planned on speaking but decided to, when he saw that the booklet being handed out at the entrance was titled “Citizen’s Guide to the Fiscal 2013 Budget.”
“Why am I at a hearing on the 2014 budget and there is no information available on that budget?” McGuire said, going on to criticize the city for abruptly canceling two of three other previously scheduled citizen taxpayer public meetings.
Trueheart Speaks, and Speaks Again
His comments didn’t get a rise out of Young, but some of Trueheart’s actions did. She spoke for her allotted three minutes, then rose again later when two other names were called, saying they had yielded their time to her. She got another three minutes.
When it happened again, Young put his foot down.
“How many people on this sheet gave their time to Ms. Trueheart?” he said. “We’re not playing games here.” A couple of people raised their hands.
“They should have said that from the start,” Young said.
“I’m not playing games,” Trueheart shot back, telling him he should “not change the rules.”
During her time at the microphone, Trueheart complimented the city for closing a projected $30 million shortfall, asked them to explain their plans for a $10 million transportation windfall and criticized what she called an excessively bloated” budget for the city police department.
Decreasing it by $10% could generate $35 to $45 million “that could go to children,” she said.
“All Youth are not out to do Bad”
The plight of city youth was a theme that echoed through the evening.
Tyrone Barnwell, an organizer with the Safe and Sound Campaign, made a plea for more summer job funding. “Give them something to do,” he said. “All youth are not out to do bad things.”
But the most organized group speaking up for young people was composed of older people: the senior citizen volunteers with Experience Corps.
Through the AARP-sponsored group, 290 volunteers go into city schools where they give young elementary-school children instruction in math and reading and give classroom teachers needed support.
The group successfully lobbied for a restoration of city funding last year, but this year faces “a serious question mark” in the 2014 preliminary budget, said Bill Romani, director of the Baltimore branch of Experience Corps.
The city is proposing to make their group, along with Teach for American and numerous other local organizations, compete for a single $500,000 fund administrated by the Family League, he said.
“What our children need, besides the basics of reading and math, is real love,” said one of about 40 people who came to represent the program, Burnett Davis.
A team leader for Experience Corps at Lakeland Elementary School, Davis said he works with 12 volunteers, ten women and two men who come for 15 hours a week (“They all really stay for longer”).
“They help the children with problem sets, reading. They mentor them one-on-one or in groups,” he said. “They go to the cafeteria and the playground, two of them are on crutches.” Additionally, he said, ESOL teachers help 185 students struggling to improve their English.
“Children crave for this kind of contact,” he said, going on to quote Corinthians on the subject of what love is: “Love thinketh no evil, bears no malice.”
Romani offered the citywide statistics: their 290 volunteers, averaging 68 years old, spends over 156,000 hours annually serving 6,200 children in 25 schools.
He noted that earlier yesterday in a City Hall ceremony, the mayor herself recognized the program for measurable success in improving attendance and classroom performance.
“This is a program that is successful,” he said.