Baltimore can’t afford to shortchange anti-violence investments | STAFF COMMENTARY

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Across Maryland, local governments are facing tough choices as they finalize their budgets for the coming fiscal year. A statewide mandate to upgrade K-12 public schools — along with a desire not to raise taxes on inflation-weary consumers — is a common lament in counties large and small. But in Baltimore, the stakes may be highest of all. That’s because Mayor Brandon Scott and members of the Baltimore City Council must decide before the month’s end how to allocate limited resources to public safety. Their decision essentially corresponds with the answer to this question: What approach works best when it comes to reducing gun violence in Baltimore?

The good news is that Baltimore’s homicide rate has been going in the right direction of late. The city is on pace for fewer than 200 homicides this year, the least since 2011. The bad news is that it’s not entirely clear why. Front and center is a national trend with a 13% drop in homicides last year after a pandemic peak, according to FBI data. Yet Baltimore’s drop last year exceeded that at 20%. And the debate over why the city marked progress fueled the recent Baltimore primary election. Was it Mayor Brandon Scott’s violence reduction strategies — including Safe Streets and other forms of “focused deterrence” — which seek to intervene in young lives before shootings take place? Or was it Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and his promise to get tougher on low-level crime than his predecessor, Marilyn Mosby?

Last month, that was a mostly rhetorical question. Now, it’s a financial one. Scott is seeking more general fund money for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE), while Bates wants more money to hire 10 to 20 new prosecutors. Which is the more worthy expense? One can certainly argue that MONSE, with a new strategy to try to intervene in high schools (Digital Harbor, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical, Carver Vocational-Technical and Edmondson-Westside under a four-school effort planned for the fall) has the broadest public support. But then Bates won office handily in 2022 by promising a get-tough approach. Would the City Council really want to deny him the tools he says he needs to do his job?

Here’s our call: Fund them both. Not necessarily everything they want, but enough to do the job. In a $4 billion overall budget, we’re talking about relatively modest actions. If they cut the usual suspects at City Hall — less spending on promotions, freeze hiring for some unfilled positions, maybe delay purchases for extrasm like surveillance cameras — and the added $700,000 or so Scott wants for MONSE is more like a rounding error. The prosecutors may be a tougher sell (Bates will have to appeal to the more moderate council members including outgoing Council President Nick Mosby to win enough support), but it probably can be done. After all, if homicide numbers suddenly start moving in the wrong direction, who wants to explain to voters before November why they decided to squeeze the city’s top prosecutor for a couple of million dollars?

Granted, Baltimore is facing some challenging budgetary times ahead from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, as well as the likelihood that downtown property values are in post-pandemic decline — a statistic expected to show up on the balance sheet next year to the detriment of property tax revenue. Throw in the end of federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA) aid and you have to wonder: If you aren’t going to power up anti-violence programs now, when will you? When can you?

Right now, Scott and Bates seem to be on the same page with both speaking well of the other’s crime reduction efforts. That partnership is put at serious risk if any rug is pulled out from under them. Let’s keep the momentum going and demonstrate to Baltimoreans and those who might actually seek to invest in this city and create jobs here, that city leaders are serious about curbing gun violence — and in an “all of the above” strategy to crime fighting.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.