Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake heralded a “new urban story” in her annual State of the City (SOTC) address on Feb. 11, noting, “The narrative of post-industrial decline won’t be the growing narrative.”
Rawlings-Blake said she planned to implement the city’s first 10-year financial plan for revitalization despite Baltimore losing more than one-third of its population in the half-century from 1950 to 2000, growing budget deficits, blight and inadequate school buildings and classrooms.
The new long-term financial plan comes as a report released by Philadelphia-based consulting firm, Public Financial Management Inc., predicted financial ruin for Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the District of Columbia and Baltimore.
According to the report Baltimore will incur $745 million in budget deficits over the next decade. The city is expected to incur $2 billion in debt in the next decade to update city infrastructure, like roads, which are plagued by a continuous pothole epidemic, and vacant row homes and to cover public employee retiree healthcare benefit liabilities.
“Many cities only engage in a long-term financial plan as a reaction to receivership, state takeovers and bond rating downgrades,” said Rawlings-Blake in her speech. “In Baltimore, it is a proactive effort so that we never reach that point.”
Rawlings-Blake’s efforts to curtail looming debts include a laundry list of new policies and strategies. She proposes a revamp of retirement plans with mandated 401(k) accounts for new Baltimore city employees, a 10 percent reduction in the city’s workforce, increasing efforts toward modernized systems and getting rid of vacant positions. She would also like to see a state mandated water and solid waste infrastructure fund, and the removal of 4,000 vacant structures around the city to build new creative spaces.
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott (D) believes the new plan seeks the best for the city and its residents.
“We are going to have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the city, but they will not be popular... and may even cause some people to not get re-elected, but it’s what has to be done,” said Scott.
Councilman Nick Mosby (D), who said he is waiting for a hardcopy of the plan, said, “In the past couple of years the approach in Baltimore, like other municipalities, is to look at a deficit and try to cure it on an annual basis. It’s definitely a bold move to look at it on a more long-term scale.” He added, “But of course the State of the City was just a speech and didn’t show how the numbers will drive out and how the city will be affected.”
Mosby believes proposals such as new mandated watershed and trash removal fees along with pension reform will be hot topics on the new agenda.
Lowering the property tax rate in Baltimore and developing a flat rate of fees for services such as watershed and trash removal “will create an even playing field,” said Mosby, since institutions such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, universities and non-profits are not currently obligated to pay for trash removal.
While the current pension model grants individuals the right to be in charge of their own retirement plan, Rawlings-Blake’s plan would create a mandatory 401(k) plan for all city employees.
“It will be interesting to see the shift to the 401(k) model inside the city government. If we stay on the path we have now with our pensions and benefits it will be a pretty scary moment,” said Mosby.
Rawlings-Blake also noted her support for gun law reforms pushed by President Obama and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker was present at the SOTC as Rawlings-Blake announced a partnership between the two jurisdictions to push for reforms on assault weapons.
In 2012, Baltimore’s homicide rate peaked at 217. In 2011, the Baltimore City Police Department reported 197 murders, down from 223 listed in 2010.
As Rawlings-Blake works to keep the streets safer, she also announced a renewal of the 1997 city-state partnership implemented by her late father Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings and former state Sen. Barbara Hoffman (D) to save the city’s failing educational system.
Rawlings-Blake noted that under the leadership of School Superintendent Dr. Andres Alonso test scores have increased, North Avenue education administrative offices and staff have shrunk and is better managed, school enrollment has increased and the number of dropouts has been cut in half. With the introduction of dozens of new charter and transformation schools middle and high school students have more educational choices, the mayor said.
“[Baltimore] is always the city that fights to come back,” said Scott. “The Baltimore riots in the 1800s, the Great Fire - this can and will be the next chapter in that ongoing saga. We as a city will come back.”