Youth advocates rally for funds

Mayor is asked to add $5.4 million to budget for family programs


Advocates made a last-ditch pitch to Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday to commit an additional $5.4 million to after-school, home-visitation and mental health programs in his 2007 budget, action that proponents said could cut costs associated with caring for juvenile delinquents and neglected children in the future.

"We are sick and tired of reading in the newspapers how awful young African-American males are doing in our city," said Sandi McFadden, executive director of Baltimore's Franciscan Youth Center, who spoke in support of the Safe and Sound Campaign event. "But without opportunities, what else can we expect?"

McFadden was one of about two dozen advocates who stood in front of City Hall and demanded that O'Malley and members of the City Council "sign and deliver" an "Opportunity Agenda" that would provide money for youth- and family-oriented programs. O'Malley has committed about $6 million to after-school activities so far - much more if one takes into account school funding and other child-focused spending in the mayor's proposed budget - but advocates want more.

Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign, which leads a citywide effort to improve the well-being of children and youth, said that funding for several programs is on the line unless officials act soon. She said that $900,000 is needed to continue work by the Success by 6 program, which serves 1,200 pregnant women and families, and $1 million to ensure that school-based mental health programs are not cut.

"The state of Maryland spends $612 million each year to put some Baltimore citizens in foster care, juvenile detention and prison, in part because too little is in place to ensure the safe and healthy development of our children," Ferebee said in a written statement distributed at the event. Later, she added: "We know the city has a lot of costs, but we also have priorities. Let's fund them."

A spokeswoman for the mayor said that between his 2007 budget proposal and budget surplus spending plan, O'Malley has set aside nearly $311 million for children's programs in the next fiscal year. Spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said that since 2005, O'Malley has increased funding to children's programs by 18 percent, or about $23 million. She said that nearly 56 percent of the city's $61 million budget surplus will go to cover youth services.

"We have been very supportive of directing funds to programs that have an impact on children's lives," Guillory said.

Safe and Sound officials backed up their funding request with polling data showing that 86 percent of city voters would support the use of surplus funds to expand opportunities for young children so that they could enter school ready to learn, and that 83 percent would back the use of such funds to continue and expand funding for after-school programs.

The poll, by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, also showed that 65 percent of state voters don't believe that local political leaders have done enough to solve problems facing children and families, and that 76 percent would be more likely to vote for a gubernatorial candidate who focuses on such issues.

O'Malley is vying for the Democratic nomination for governor, as is Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. They are looking to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in the gubernatorial race this year.

Safe and Sound officials said they hoped the political focus of the poll would bring added punch to their message, but Guillory, the mayor's spokeswoman, said there was little hope that any more dollars would be added to the mayor's budget proposal.

The city's Board of Estimates is expected to vote on O'Malley's budget tomorrow, and then it will go to the City Council for further review. There is the possibility that council members could cut spending somewhere else to free up funds.

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