A letter Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) sent to the mayor’s office shows that he personally requested slots money to be redirected to purchase an SUV for neighborhood watch group Baltimore Shomrim. The councilman previously told reporters he did not request the vehicle.
The mayor’s office released a March 6, 2017 letter to the JT on Tuesday showing Schleifer requested $100,000 of unallocated public safety Video Lottery Terminals slots funds for the vehicle. Those particular funds must be spent within one mile of Pimlico Race Course.
In an interview with the JT, Schleifer admitted he sent the letter but added that talk of funding the SUV for Shomrim had been in the works before he and Mayor Catherine Pugh took office.
“Shomrim has been asking for the SUV for the last three or four years,” Schleifer said. “Any neighborhood association or individual in the district can make requests, and it is my responsibility as councilman to represent the requests of the community. When I met with community members after I took office [in December], I was told that this was something the community has been trying to get for years.”
Schleifer and Pugh presented the group the SUV at its 13th anniversary dinner at Congregation Shomrei Emunah on Nov. 11. The patrol vehicle, whose black-and-blue color pattern is similar to that of the Baltimore Police Department, is outfitted with several Baltimore Shomrim law enforcement-style decals.
An article published on the news site Baltimore Jewish Life last week said that the SUV was “gifted,” sparking concern among residents in the Baltimore City Voters Facebook group, who questioned the nature of the funding.
A recommended fiscal year 2018 spending plan for the Pimlico Community Development Authority sent to the mayor’s office in March indicated that public safety money from the FY 2017 budget would be used to purchase the SUV. The letter said “it is understood” that $75,000 of the $100,000 allocation that was not reserved for specific projects was for the vehicle.
Thomas Stosur, chair of the PCDA, which is responsible for allocating slots money in the greater Park Heights area, confirmed to the JT via email that the PCDA requested the vehicle and that FY 2017 funds covered the $49,897.97 cost.
The FY 2018 final plan said that $240,000 — in addition to $25,000 from the FY 2017 public safety allocation — would be earmarked for a public-safety vehicle for Hatzalah, an organization that provides emergency medical services. Schleifer requested $288,000 for an ambulance, according to the letter, which recommended private fundraising cover the remainder of the cost.
To accommodate the ambulance funding, the PCDA reduced allocations for street cleaning from $135,000 to $100,000; Northwest Citizens Patrol from $50,000 to $25,000; and development incentives from $180,865 to $0. The PCDA believes that CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) programs serve the same purpose as the development incentives, budget documents said.
Schleifer said any money that goes to Shomrim is a smart investment for the community.
“Public safety is my No. 1 priority,” Schleifer said. “Shomrim helps the police in assisting with all kinds of crimes, and this command center [vehicle] is a benefit to the entire community that will help the volunteers and police catch criminals committing crimes.”
Still, the award of the SUV left some community leaders confused at first because they said they knew nothing about the vehicle.
Sandra Johnson, president of the Fallstaff Community Association, said she did not have any knowledge of the request for the SUV before the Nov. 11 announcement. After discussing the matter with her board recently, she said any funding that goes to Shomrim is money well spent but felt the situation could have been handled with more clarity.
“Our neighborhood has received VLT funds for a few projects, so we have no issue with Shomrim getting the SUV and are satisfied and happy with the services the group provides,” she said. “The only thing I’d add is why didn’t the Northwest Citizens Patrol receive something similar? But if they aren’t complaining, then we aren’t complaining.”
Some city residents questioned the move in the Baltimore City Voters Facebook page.
Jessica Lewis said she found the appropriation of the slots funds troubling, writing, “I can think of a lot organizations working on real issues that could use a vehicle. Or just the [money].”
Others, pointing to the success Shomrim has had working with the Baltimore Police Department in assisting with home invasions and carjackings, supported the awarding of the vehicle.
Adam Ben-Zev said he feels it is “a very good use of city funds [that] saves the city resources on an hourly basis.”
This story has been updated.