Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s budget plan includes funding for Baltimore’s fight against vacants, Harborplace renovation
- January 21, 2024
When Gov. Wes Moore packed up and moved from his North Baltimore home to the governor’s mansion in Annapolis this time last year, he left with a promise to his adopted hometown.
The health of Maryland’s future was contingent on the success of its largest city, and — after eight years of Baltimoreans often feeling cast aside by his predecessor — he’d be investing heavily in everything from the city’s lagging public transportation system and under-resourced law enforcement to its vacant homes and struggling businesses.
The Democrat’s latest $63 billion state budget plan — the first his administration has crafted solely — would make strides in each of those areas while leaving some essential questions for future years up in the air, Baltimore-area lawmakers said this week.
Some of the highlights, they said, are $50 million to demolish or rehabilitate vacant structures, $4 million for a Department of Juvenile Services program that launched in Baltimore City and Baltimore County last year, $27 million for the Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative fund, $30 million toward remaking the Inner Harbor promenade and $5 million to plan for the demolition and repurposing of the State Center complex where state offices have been located but desperately needed repair for decades.
Almost all of those are increases or new funds compared to prior years, though the final budget is subject to change as members of the General Assembly tweak the plan in the coming months.
A planned boost to the city’s outsized share of highway user revenues, which go toward improving local and state roads, is also still on the agenda after local leaders pushed back on a proposed cut that was designed to help reduce $3.3 billion in future transportation spending that the state can’t afford.
“Gov. Moore is showing that he’s ready to invest and continue to build Baltimore’s renaissance,” Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said in an interview. “There’s conversations to be had but if you look at the message they’re sending, they’re saying Baltimore is a priority.”
The unresolved conversations have focused so far on the transportation funds.
A 2022 state law scheduled to go into effect starting in the 2025 fiscal year will increase Baltimore’s share of the highway user revenue by tens of millions of dollars — potentially up to $100 million more than current funding by the 2026 budget year, according to projections. The city maintains all roads within its borders, unlike other local governments that rely on the state, so it collects most of the share going to local disbursement, which the new law would increase from 15.6% to roughly 18%.
Moore’s administration had proposed pausing that planned increase as a cost-saving measure, provoking fierce opposition from area lawmakers.
Within hours of Moore announcing Tuesday that he would backtrack — for next year’s budget but not beyond — Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. both sat before lawmakers in Annapolis saying that decision helps but is far from enough.
“One-time funding means that we’re back at square one again next year,” Olszewski, a Democrat, told members of the House Appropriations Committee.
Olszewski and others put the cuts in the context of the last time highway user revenues were slashed, in 2009 during the Great Recession. The prior levels never were recovered, which meant Baltimore County losing out on about $450 million and Baltimore City losing $900 million over the last 15 years, Olszewski and Scott said. The county’s lost revenue, Olszewski said, is about the same amount that a recent county analysis showed is needed to get all of its roadways “back to just average condition.”
“The truth is many of us need not only the restoration but could use additional support,” Olszewski said.
Scott said three times in six minutes of testimony that he “appreciated” the move and understands the governor’s budget constraints — which, beyond the transportation budget, include a $761 million structural deficit in the general fund and billions of dollars owed for other policies.
But, “to be very blunt,” he said, Baltimore shouldn’t carry the burden after years of under-investment under former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
He rattled off a list of city projects that are at risk if the cuts are maintained in future years: resurfacing 170 lane miles of roads, rehabilitating the Hanover Street Bridge, addressing a seven-year backlog of sidewalk repairs and planning for the Red Line, the east-west public transit project that Moore revived last year. The Red Line in particular had been a sore spot between Democratic officials in the city and Hogan, who scrapped what was a $2.9 billion light rail plan in 2015.
“The stakes couldn’t be more high,” Scott told lawmakers, who are looking for alternative revenue options for the state’s transportation system like potentially new registration fees for electric vehicles or increasing tolls.
In an interview later, Scott said he would continue to focus on the issue. He also praised Moore for the noticeable influx in state funds for other high-priority issues like housing, public safety and economic development.
The mayor announced a sweeping $3 billion plan last month to demolish or refurbish the city’s thousands of vacant properties. A mix of public and private financing included a $900 million request from the state over 15 years.
Moore’s new budget would include $50 million for that effort through Project C.O.R.E., or Creating Opportunities for Revitalization and Equity. That’s an increase from $20 million in the current 2024 budget and it “puts us well on our way to fulfilling the 50-year plan,” Scott said.
“It could certainly get us to that $900 million or perhaps even more,” said Scott, adding that there already are conversations about making that $50 million an annual investment.
Another step toward a long-term project is $30 million going toward the Inner Harbor promenade to boost the redevelopment of Harborplace. Lawmakers previously authorized that funding, along with $37.5 million in the current year’s budget, to begin the project. But developer P. David Bramble has also estimated $400 million in public money will be needed for the promenade, parks, infrastructure and proposed road changes, and officials have not outlined a plan to reach that figure.
Scott said he was thankful for the initial state investments but did not specify how much will be needed in future years. He said the state contributed to the original construction of Harborplace more than four decades ago and “our hope is for the same thing as we rebuild it.”
“The promenade is critical,” said Del. Mark Edelson, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the Inner Harbor.
Edelson and other members of the Baltimore delegation were pleased with additional areas of the governor’s budget that deal with improving services for juvenile offenders and incentivizing technology company investments in the region.
That includes $4 million to expand the Thrive Academy, a Department of Juvenile Services gun violence prevention program that is serving 190 young people in the city and Baltimore County during its first year. And it includes $6.4 million to support the city’s “tech hub” and compete for up to $70 million in federal funding, according to budget documents.
The tech funding includes $500,000 to establish a grant program named after Pava LaPere, a 26-year-old Baltimore entrepreneur who was killed in September. The program will provide $50,000 grants to local technology-focused startups.
Nearly doubling the state’s assistance for the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, to $27 million, is among other economic development efforts reflected in the budget plan. The program is designed to aid local businesses and neighborhood development in the city as well as in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
Sen. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents parts of North Baltimore and Baltimore County, said the boost could help areas like the York Road corridor in her district, where state aid has remained static for years but revitalization costs only have increased.
“Across the city there are commercial corridors that need to be reactivated,” Washington said. “Neighborhoods are what make Baltimore what it is.”
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