City and state officials gathered at City Hall, Feb. 10, for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s annual State of the City address.
Though the mayor touched on a range of topics from city schools to economic growth, technology improvements, and property tax credits, at the top of the list were two subjects: homicides and violent crime.
“We must continue to evaluate public safety,” she said. “I know it is on the minds of our citizens, business [owners] and communities.”
The address came in the wake of a bloody January that saw nearly one homicide a day in the city and more than two dozen murders so far this year.
“These victims are more than just statistics, they are not abstract figures.” Rawlings-Blake said. “These are daughters, mothers, fathers, friends, and neighbors. Every life is precious. Two years ago we were able to get our homicide rate down to its lowest [level] in a generation, but 197 murders was still 197 too many.”
“Please know that I share in your pain, your loss, your grief. I will take all necessary actions to fight crime in this city,” she said.
The mayor said police have seen a 300 percent increase in citizens calling with helpful tips to solve crimes, and that bringing down crime in the city “hinges on the ability to work together, promote the value of every human life.”
Standing before council members, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and a host of state delegates, Rawlings-Blake detailed how she was “not immune” to the violence that has gripped the city. Last year, Rawlings-Blake’s cousin was murdered, and in 2002 her brother was viciously attacked.
The mayor announced that an anti-violence program, Operation CeaseFire, could be instrumental in bringing down crime in designated zones.
“There is a small percent of the population causing a large percent of the violence in our communities,” said Councilman Nick Mosby of District 7. “The program, CeaseFire, has been successful in many other major cities and I’m looking forward to seeing results for the City of Baltimore.”
Blake said that technology upgrades for the Baltimore Police Department will allow officers to be more “nimble” and more responsive. Police patrols will be increased, and curfews for minors will be enforced by way of year-round youth connection centers. Minors caught without a guardian during hours with strict curfew enforcement will be taken to the connection centers.
“While there, the young people and their families will have the opportunity to be connected with services that support and promote positive development for our young people,” Rawlings-Blake said. “There will be severe and swift consequences for any future acts of violence. If you’re genuinely sincere about wanting to change your life, we’re here with the resources and support to assist you in that endeavor.”
As for Baltimore City Public Schools, the mayor said that major improvements are in the works.
“We are building 15 new schools and significantly renovating at least 30 additional schools,” she said. “Our children deserve much better. Providing quality education for our young people is key to attracting families and keeping families in Baltimore.”
The mayor also announced plans for a 10-year apartment credit to entice families to stay in the city, and said she is continuing her efforts to bring property taxes down 20 percent by the year 2020. Homeowners last year saved an average of $220 on their property tax bill, and automated systems will help prevent tax bill errors.
The mayor also announced a plan to increase entrepreneurship within city limits by way of a business center focused on minority and women-owned businesses.
“We want companies that are built to last and here to stay,” she said. “We won a $900,000 three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to create a minority business development center right here in Baltimore.”
“Our business center will focus on increasing the size, the scale, and the capacity of successful minority business enterprises,” said Rawlings-Blake. The center is set to open in March.
Councilman Carl A. Stokes of the city’s 12th District told the AFRO that he believed a minority business center would be good for the city.
“I think if we can put into place incentives to encourage development and growth of the residential population in the city there could be great economic impact,” he said. “The more folks who are living in the city, the more they will buy locally, use the local grocery store, use the local cleaners, and the local hair salon.”
Rawlings-Blake said she has been working with police and fire department unions in an effort to provide more competitive salaries. She also announced that $400 million of the more than $700 million budget deficit she took on when she first took office has been closed.
The mayor also talked about the “Vacants to Value” program that has helped turn over dilapidated properties. More than 1,000 homeowners have been forced into court-mandated auctions as a result of letting their properties fall into ruin.