Police patrol Greenmount Avenue where a homicide recently happened. (Justus Heger)
Church bells rang out along Greenmount Avenue the night the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl. In between the clang of bells were the pings of celebratory gunfire in the darkness. My first thought that evening, as my neighbors poured out of their homes with joyous cheers and hugs, was whether or not a bullet was going to drop into anyone’s skull. Thankfully, the gunfire quieted overnight without incident.
Baltimore, more than tony San Francisco, needed a win. Living amid blocks of once beautiful brick and mortar facades and porches now decayed and hidden by high grass and debris, the people of this city needed their worth to be acknowledged. If not by a visibly changing city, then by a football team that encompasses hope, teamwork and a relentless aspect.
It has been said before that liberalism is agreeable to those who can afford it. For the rest of us, economic realities bend the truth to a more conservative approach. Having said that, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s State of the City speech heralded an economic reckoning for the course Baltimore City has been on for decades.
In her speech on Monday, Mayor Rawlings Blake wisely laid out the deficit the city faces in the next ten years. Using a study she commissioned last year at a cost of over $400,000, she made it plain that if Baltimore is to grow, it needs to change how it compensates its employees and renovates its aged infrastructure. The study anticipated deficits of $3 billion in city employee pension benefits and another $1 billion deficit for infrastructure.
Throwing in our state high property tax as a hindrance to growth in attracting new business and families, the mayor offered several proposals as part of her Ten Year Plan to bring down the property tax by over 20% in the next decade. The most glaring of these proposals is an additional tax on trash and recycling pickups and another tax to pay for storm water infrastructure. Each will be used to offset the loss from property revenues dropping 50 cents.
Stephanie Rawlings Blake is Baltimore’s landed political gentry and a technocrat. Still, it takes guts to petition the state to fund education in Baltimore in block grants that the city can use as collateral for greater school infrastructure funding from banks. The trade off with the state for such demands must be this. More than the mayor chose to highlight in her speech, we must get our house in order. Motivation is the key.
While Baltimore has made great strides in public safety, we still offer up the majority of those who fill Maryland’s jails. It serves little purpose to first debate the issues of non violent offenses such as marijuana possession or institutional racism when we know that jobs are need right now. Even as city schools have made great strides with our dropout rate under Dr. Alonzo, our graduation rate was barely over 70 percent in 2012. In the end, I’m sure Baltimore will survive and one day thrive. The questions to ask are these. How long will it take? How many will we lose along the way?
If the mayor is calling for greater efficiency in city agencies, here is one example where the city overlooks its responsibility. Anyone who owns a home in Charles Village in central Baltimore pays an extra surcharge to the Charles Village Community Benefits District (CVCBD), whose main function is street cleaning. Still, they do so much more.
Matt Bradby, who heads the cleaning crew for CVCBD, said more than half of the bags of trash they collect each week have been illegally left by homeowners, contractors and businesses. Despite Bradby’s best efforts to involve city inspectors to cite trash scofflaws, CVCBD cleaning teams have are forced to pick up over 1,000 bulk items such as furniture and refrigerators each year. As well, they collect an average of 5,000 bags of trash monthly, half of which is illegally dumped.
If the mayor is going to get serious about efficiency and making the city more presentable, it might well start by setting very public examples of a few city agencies and scofflaws. She might also set an example for other city leaders with a very public campaign about the need to stop illegal dumping and littering.
For this column, we have previously offered that all drug rehabilitation services be placed under the control of John Hopkins Hospital. Short of doing that, if the mayor’s focus is on helping young people in our schools, she might well focus on the parents suffering addiction. To that end, the black market sales of methadone and bupe that takes place around rehab centers like those Maryland Avenue must stop.
For all the federal dollars these agencies garner for their work, they must begin to police themselves and their clients rather than forcing city police to do it alone. These agencies must stop shoveling blame on others and take responsibility. If the mayor wants to create a healthier environment where addicts can get clean, a threat to cut off funding to such agencies until they begin to police themselves is a good start.
More than a century ago, education as a way out of poverty was seen as a pipedream. Families firmly believed in farm or industrial work as their childrens’ only means of survival. Today, it is understood that education is the way out of poverty yet for so many of our children, there is no work ethic in the home they can model at school. If the mayor wants to break through and challenge the families of so many kids whose hope in life depends on education, why not restart a form of Roosevelt’s (CCC) Civilian Conservation Corps?
Knowing there is only so much money in the pot, why not use some of it to employ the parents with groups like Operation Oliver? With the slow drawdown of military forces overseas, we have a wealth of motivated and skilled people coming home who need work and do not fear ghetto. By connecting less motivated civilians with highly skilled and motivated returning service men and women in housing renovations and the re-greening of this city, the parents can begin to set an example for their kids. By giving so many parents a sense of worth and desperately needed skill training in carpentry or horticulture, we will also begin to offer skilled labor to those who would invest in Baltimore.
Baltimoreans coexist amid two economies. The first economy contains most of us who work for a living. The second economy contains a much smaller group who, for many reasons, deal in drugs. The lawless behavior of the second group makes living in Baltimore intolerable for all of us. It also costs us ever more in public services let alone the waste of human capital.
Until the latter group is offered greater alternatives to an economy whose incentives have far worse consequences than most of us can imagine, we will continue to repeat the same generational cycle of unacceptable levels of teen pregnancy, violence, incarceration and underachievement. Taking a chance on the poorest of us might just bring in the greatest economic and social returns for Baltimore.
The mayor’s focus on the city’s fiscal issues is more than laudable. Still, for the homeowner in the city, the tax issue sounds like an even swap. Lowering property tax while raising other everyday taxes is the same as keeping the property tax at its current rate. At best, in ten years Mayor Rawlings Blake will have kept our economic problems from getting worse. Fine.
The dire prediction laid out by Mayor Rawlings Blake should remind the reader that a city cannot live on non profits alone. Commerce, large and small, will drive it. Baltimore is a city ripe for remaking and could someday be called the gem on the Chesapeake. Though the bones of this town still lay bare, they are too strong to bury. The rowhouses and industrial buildings, relics of a once thriving economy, await reuse and the touch of human hand.