June 1 marked the beginning of hurricane season, and a storm is brewing: Should federal taxpayers foot the bill for the rioting and assorted violence that has crippled some Baltimore neighborhoods following the Freddie Gray protests?
The final numbers for the riots are not yet in, but $20 million is the figure already being tossed around to cover the costs of police, firefighters and other first responders, and the damage to city-owned property. It is the price Baltimore taxpayers have to pay after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake winked, giving hoodlums the high sign to run buck wild.
The early estimate excludes lost revenue, of course. And officials say city and federal loans and grants are available for mom-and-pop shops and other businesses trashed during the turmoil.
Baltimore’s finance chief, Henry Raymond, has said the city is on “strong financial footing.” But then, out of the other side of his mouth, he said a reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency “will reduce the financial stress that we’re under.”
The plan is to get FEMA to reimburse 75 percent of the costs, which, as I said, have yet to be set in stone — and once that number is set, expect it to be much higher than $20 million.
The planners are named Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat. They are the ones responsible for the calculations, and the signatories of the request.
The payees are red-blooded Americans who keep FEMA afloat for such natural disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Superstorm Sandy, and FEMA, as you may or may not know, is no tightwad.
Indeed, on New Year’s Eve, when many of us were toasting the new year or on our knees praying it in, FEMA very quietly released unsettling news. In a case of good taxpayer dollars literally being blown away, this newspaper reported that FEMA overspent hurricane reimbursements in Florida in 2004 and 2005 by more than $177 million — and the federal government is liable for another $1 billion in future disaster costs “due to lax insurance reviews.”
The Washington Times reported that in a Jan. 1 story, which also said officials at “FEMA had been aware of the insurance discrepancies since 2010 but had done nothing to fix them.”
Now, Ms. Rawlings-give-‘em-room-Blake and Mr. white-hat Hogan want hardworking Americans to give them easy access to the federal trough. The preliminary Baltimore request noted that rioters and looters hit more than 380 businesses — and not all were set afire or ripped off. But in one way or another, they were affected.
Mr. Hogan made particular note of the lost taxes from tourism, conventions and the like, while Mrs. Rawlings-Blake cited the need for public works to clean up the mess.
The Small Business Administration told Reuters that during that one rough-and-tumble week, April 25 to May 3, damage was estimated at $9 million.
By the way, none of the reported estimates has put a dollar figure on the costs to prosecute the offenders who caused the problems in the first place, which means additional cha-chings.
Moreover, Baltimore has yet to pay the price for its bloodletting unrelated to Freddie Gray. Detectives, prosecutors and public defenders are in overdrive trying to keep the peace and curb the city’s spiraling homicide rate, which, with 43 corpses, marked May as the deadliest month in Charm City since the 1970s.
You can’t blame Mr. Hogan and Ms. Rawlings-Blake for seeing the need to aid Baltimoreans after what happened. It’s just that FEMA sees needs and turns on the spigot, whether the “disaster” is of natural causes, as hurricanes are, or man-made.
Right now, FEMA is a problem. Baltimore is a problem, and throwing money at a man-made problem is a problem.
Allowing FEMA to aid Baltimore “as-is” is a storm waiting to happen.
What’s Mr. Hogan, a fiscal conservative, going to do when the first seasonal storm whips her skirts along the Shore?
If he lets FEMA in, FEMA will gain a foothold in Annapolis.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.