Anti-bias agency's funds in jeopardy

Proposed 26% cut in budget questioned by minority groups

April 12, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A proposed 26 percent budget cut to Baltimore's anti-discrimination agency, the Community Relations Commission, has triggered concerns among some city officials and minority groups, particularly the city's gay and lesbian community.

The commission, once hailed as a model for city government efforts to combat discrimination, is down to 17 staffers from a 1970s high of 60.

Commission officials, braced for steep budget cuts, were surprised when Mayor Martin O'Malley two weeks ago proposed cutting a quarter of their funding -- from $949,485 -- which includes $50,000 in federal funds -- to $704,618 in his preliminary budget plan. They say the cuts would effectively disable the agency, and others agree.

"It would cripple the commission," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "I'm not sure Martin understands the importance of the commission."

The Community Relations Commission (CRC) was created in 1956 and is believed to be one of the nation's first public anti-discrimination agencies.

In addition to investigating and mediating discrimination complaints, it conducts sensitivity training seminars and mediation sessions in neighborhood disputes; handles resident complaints about excessive force and harassment by police; and helps organize the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, which started this year.

In 1996, the CRC investigated allegations of racial bias in the Police Department's hiring and firing practices, and agency supporters say it plays a key role in maintaining race relations and combating racism in Baltimore.

Shannon Avery, vice chair of the CRC's volunteer board of commissioners, said cutting the budget "greatly affects minority communities" and "sends a message that the CRC is not needed."

In addition to the volunteer board, the agency has 17 paid staffers, including longtime Executive Director Alvin Gillard. O'Malley's proposed budget calls for cutting six positions, though his financial advisors warn that such cuts could jeopardize federal funds.

O'Malley has said his budget proposals are preliminary. The administration is expected to ease or eliminate some of the proposed cuts before the budget is adopted in June.

"Nobody questions the good work the commission has done, but every city agency is being looked at to make up for this budget deficit," said Tony White, the mayor's spokesman.

Some of CRC's duties are covered by other agencies. The city's Civilian Review Board handles police complaints. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission upholds federal anti-discrimination statutes.

But groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and various racial and ethnic organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, say the CRC is a unique and valuable agency. They say that the mayor's proposal sends the wrong message.

"Right now, someone who is harassed because they are gay or perceived to be gay, we refer them to the CRC. We're happy to have them there," said Cathy Brennan, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. "We were quite surprised to hear they were getting that deep a cut."

Brennan said the group's members fear they'll lose a valuable arbiter of discrimination cases, and they're concerned that the CRC is taking a bigger hit than other city agencies. She said the CRC has used mediation to settle claims of harassment and discrimination -- often in disputes between an employee and employer -- thereby avoiding lawsuits.

"So, it's a valuable resource to the community. We're hoping that the mayor will take another look at the CRC budget," she said.

Avery, who also serves on the Gay and Lesbian Community Center Board, said the mayor should be aware of the CRC's value.

The CRC mediated between city officials and the gay community after an incident late last year in which Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano made anti-gay remarks at a Fells Point bar.

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