Stilt walkers move through the street as attendees of Artscape 2019 visit vendor tents. Photo credit: Artscape/Instagram.
Stilt walkers move through the street as attendees of Artscape 2019 visit vendor tents. Photo credit: Artscape/Instagram.

The Baltimore City Council has voted to withhold more than $1.7 million from the fiscal 2024 budget of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), following a tense June 2 budget hearing during which lawmakers expressed concerns about the way the independent agency was spending funds allocated by the city.

BOPA had requested $2,625,754 to help fund its operations as the city’s events producer, film office and arts council during the fiscal year beginning July 1. Fiscal 2024 is the final year of BOPA’s contract to work with the city.

In meetings Wednesday at noon and 3 p.m., the City Council voted to approve an amendment to the Ordinance of Estimates for fiscal 2024 that temporarily withholds $1,744,002 from BOPA’s budget, leaving $881,752 coming from the city.

This is the second year in a row that the council has withheld funds from BOPA’s budget. It withheld $196,000 for fiscal 2023, leaving an allocation of about $2.5 million. 

The total city budget approved for Fiscal 2024 is $4.4 billion. The property tax rate drops slightly, from $2.248 per $100 of assessed value to $2.244 per $100 of assessed value. That’s a “.004 cent reduction” in the tax rate, Laura Larsen, budget director in the city’s Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, told the Board of Estimates today.

The BOPA-related amendment makes it possible for the $1.7 million in withheld funds to be restored to BOPA’s budget by way of a supplemental appropriation, if negotiations with the council lead to that, Larsen told the Board of Estimates today. It also makes it possible for the Mayor’s Office to use the funds withheld from BOPA’s budget to carry out part of the work BOPA is contractually obligated to do.

Eric Costello, chair of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said in an email message that the council will continue to work with BOPA as the new fiscal year approaches. He plans to give BOPA’s board a list of expectations that council members want it to meet in order to get the funds restored.  

For now, “it is unclear if any functions will shift,” Costello said. “We want to continue to work with BOPA. However, they have severe governance issues that need to be rectified in the immediate term.”

The first event that BOPA usually produces in a new fiscal year is the Fourth of July fireworks celebration at the Inner Harbor. BOPA board chair and president Brian Lyles told City Council members on June 2 that the agency is planning to have music and fireworks at the Inner Harbor on July 4 in collaboration with the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

With less than three weeks to go before July 4th, BOPA still has not provided any details about its plans for the event. A representative for the Waterfront Partnership confirmed that plans are in the works for the fireworks ceremony and that BOPA is taking the lead and is working on a press release about it.

The decision to withhold $1.7 million from BOPA’s budget comes five months after Mayor Brandon Scott called for former CEO Donna Drew Sawyer to resign, saying he had lost faith in her ability to lead the agency. She stepped down on January 10. Scott appointed one of her lieutenants, Tonya Miller Hall, to the newly-created position of Senior Advisor for Arts and Cultural Affairs in the Mayor’s Office.

During the June 2 hearing with the council’s Ways and Means Committee, Costello raised questions about the board that runs BOPA, including how many of its members have resigned in recent months and how much of a severance package it had approved for Sawyer. Councilman James Torrence wanted to know how much BOPA spent in an effort to trademark the name Artscape, an effort later squelched by the city’s law department.

BOPA recently moved into expensive new offices at 7 Saint Paul St., but city council members say they haven’t focused on that expense because the City of Baltimore is not obligated to pay rent for the space or pay for the renovations Sawyer wanted, including a mural that Sawyer commissioned based on the theme: CREATE. Before resigning, Sawyer had talked about changing BOPA’s name to Create Baltimore.

Costello told the Board of Estimates Wednesday that the funds withheld from BOPA’s budget “will not and should not” cause any layoffs to BOPA’s staff. He said in his email message that Artscape will go on as scheduled this year, Sept. 22 to 24, and that BOPA is taking the lead on that event with the city’s support.

The state of Maryland is giving BOPA $1.5 million to help produce Artscape this year. It will be BOPA’s first Artscape festival since 2019.

Lyles, BOPA’s chair and president, said his board is committed to addressing the council’s concerns.

“While we’re dismayed by the decision of the City Council to again withhold budgeted funding, we are also committed to working collaboratively with the Council and Office of the Mayor to address their concerns and fortify the governance of BOPA in a way that leaves no doubt about the proper oversight of the organization and the fulfillment of its mandate for the benefit of all Baltimore residents,” he said in a statement.

“A great many local artists and creatives depend on the support that BOPA provides,” he continued. “Moreover, we have a highly accomplished and dedicated staff that routinely goes above and beyond in order to provide essential resources, as well as elevate and amplify the broader impact that local artists make possible. BOPA fulfills its mission each and every day and the Board will work intently to allay any concerns about the stability or proper governance of the organization during this period of transition.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.