Baltimore youth fund bill lacks oversight provisions.

The residents of Baltimore need the Children and Youth Fund to succeed. Dependent on financial help from outside the city, the city government needs to demonstrate to its state, federal and private benefactors that it is a good steward of taxpayers’ money. For either of those two things to occur, the Baltimore City Council must do better than Council Bill 17-0163, passed on Dec.7th.

Absent from the bill are requirements for openness, transparency and accountability in the distribution of money from the fund. Nothing in the bill makes the entities responsible for deciding which organizations will receive grants from the fund subject to the Open Meetings Act, Public Information Act or city auditing requirements. That must be fixed.

The Children and Youth Fund was approved by city voters as a charter amendment in 2016. It earmarks at least $0.03 for every $100 of assessable property value in the city “to be used exclusively for purposes of establishing new and augmenting existing programs for and services to the children and youth of this city.” Currently, that comes to about $12 million each year.

Bill 17-0163 provides that an “interim fiscal agent,” expected to be Associated Black Charities, will administer the distribution of money for the next year or two. A “permanent intermediary” will manage distribution on a long-term basis.

Lester Davis, deputy chief of staff for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, assured me that issues such as openness and transparency will be addressed in a memorandum of understanding. I believe him, but those requirements should be in the law, not subject to negotiation.

It is the provisions in the bill regarding the permanent intermediary that are most problematic, if only because they are so vague. The bill states little more than that the interim fiscal agent will “establish” the permanent intermediary, whatever that means. No mention is made of approval by the mayor and City Council of the organizational structure established by the interim fiscal agent.

Material prepared for the council by Adam Jackson, co-chairman of the task force on the bill convened by Mr. Young, suggests that the permanent intermediary should be an “independent organization” with an “independent governing body” that “will be appointed via the Executive Nominations process of the City Council.” The bill itself is silent on the nature of the permanent intermediary.

Mr. Davis told me that the structure of the permanent intermediary is a work in progress that will “evolve” as the interim fiscal agent does its work. My suggestion is that, before things evolve too far, the idea of an independent organization doling out property tax revenues deposited into the Children and Youth Fund be scrapped.

The permanent intermediary will have its hands full. Under the proposed grant-making criteria described to the council in material prepared by John Brothers, the other co-chairman of the task force, grants can fund “once-off, pilot or seed projects and/or programs.” Grants may be awarded to organizations that serve “an area as small as one block, a census tract or any neighborhood or community that they can outline.”

That’s fine, but dividing grant money among smaller, grassroots organizations without proven track records exponentially increases the effort necessary to make sure money is properly spent. It requires more vetting at the front end and more auditing at the back end, and compounds the task of evaluating the success of the grant-funded programs and services.

Mr. Jackson stated at a forum at Johns Hopkins University in April that the intent was to upend the conventional strategy of directing funding through “big-box, white-corporate institutions” not necessarily focused on “helping black people find their own destinies.” Mr. Davis acknowledged at the same forum that “we didn’t want to do business as usual.”

At least doing business as usual within city government involves checks and balances on expenditure decisions. In my opinion, the permanent intermediary can be creative without freeing it from measures intended to make its decision-making process open, transparent and accountable.

The mayor and City Council should revisit the law and make the permanent intermediary an instrumentality of the city subject to the state Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act, and to other fiscal controls that the city deems appropriate. An advisory board can be appointed to promote innovation, but final decisions on grants should be made by city officials answerable directly to the mayor and City Council — who answer directly to the taxpayers. A healthy tension between creativity and fiscal responsibility is the best way to make sure that the Children and Youth Fund achieves its ambitious goals.

[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on January 7, 2018 but not posted to my blog until June 1, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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