A few words of advice
Local experts and former officials offer suggestions on how Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake should tackle the city's challenges
Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, 39, will become Baltimore's mayor on Feb. 4. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / January 8, 2010)
A falling homicide rate, rising public school enrollments and a flourishing arts scene bring hope for brighter times, but Rawlings-Blake inherits a city beset by a colossal budget crisis, vacancies at the top of key agencies and a murder rate still among the highest in the nation. Businesses are closing in droves. Homeowners struggle under staggering property tax rates. Frequent water main breaks are dramatic reminders of the city's crumbling infrastructure.
And the extended corruption probe and court case involving her predecessor, Mayor Sheila Dixon, who announced her resignation last week as part of a plea deal, has cast a cloud over City Hall.
Thinking she could use a helping hand or 20, The Baltimore Sun talked with experts in transportation, economics and education; local leaders in business and the arts and even a few of her predecessors, seeking advice for the new mayor.
Rawlings-Blake, who calls herself a "government nerd" obsessed with policy issues, said she welcomed the ideas and offered a few of her early thoughts on the direction in which she hoped to move the city.
She calls balancing the city's budget - a $190 million gap must be closed in the coming fiscal year - her top priority.
"We're going to have to start making some really tough decisions," she said. "My focus is on balancing this budget and getting our priorities in line."
She has promised to strengthen the city's schools, a signature issue of her father, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings. "I get to live in the world he dreamed of," she said, "when he dreamed what was possible for our children and our schools."
And, as she has said daily since becoming mayor-in-waiting, she will focus on public safety. "We can have the best schools," she said, "but if people are afraid to live here, it's not going to matter."
The unofficial brain trust we recruited came up with suggestions ranging from the lofty (keep government open and transparent) to the hyper-local (beware of pink flamingos):
Cut property taxes, institute land bank, build on progress
By Lorraine Mirabella
The incoming mayor, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, could have a tremendous impact on improving the city's housing market by committing to lowering property taxes and pushing for a land bank authority to help the city get control of vacant homes, said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
The city has seen its tax base erode as it struggles to compete with the declining home prices and lower tax rate of the surrounding counties, Landers said.
"The tax rate for Baltimore City just really puts a damper on the resale market in a lot of ways," Landers said, with city buyers in the $300,000 to $400,000 range facing annual tax bills of $6,000 to $8,000.
Even if large reductions in Baltimore's property tax rate prove impossible, he said, he would hope to see an incremental approach, with a commitment to reduce the rate by 2 cents to 3 cents each year.
"It's very tough to maintain that, but it gives people some hope and sends out a signal that the city is serious about trying to reduce the property tax," Landers said.
Mayor Sheila Dixon had proposed a land bank, a quasi-governmental agency to take control of most city-owned vacant properties and market them to buyers or investors to renovate, streamlining what is now a lengthy process. But the proposal never moved ahead.
"The city continues to lose population and the number of vacant properties goes up, and a land bank offers a possibility of getting control over that," Landers said. "If the city could put a land bank in place, it would be one of the single most important pieces of legislation in the last 30 to 40 years."
As mayor, he said, Rawlings-Blake also should build on progress the city has made in reducing property crime in neighborhoods and improving the school system with a focus on charter schools as a way to attract residents and boost the city's tax base.
And, finally, Landers said he hopes she will support continued investments in city parks and open space.
"Studies show property values in and around well-maintained parkland are higher than property values," without such amenities nearby, he said.
Rawlings-Blake has been supportive of housing efforts such as the Healthy Neighborhood Initiative, which provides low-interest financing to homeowners for repairs and renovations in selected neighborhoods. But as City Council president, she indicated that she had misgivings about establishing a land bank. She had proposed changes to ensure that the property in the land bank would revert to the city if the buying entity were to dissolve.
Carry on Dixon's efforts and make city greener still
By Jill Rosen
When she peeks out her door in Upper Fells Point and sees her neighbors' recycling bins lined up and overflowing with cans and cardboard, the executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association knows that the system is working.
Mary Sloan Roby hopes the incoming mayor will keep the city's new recycling campaign rolling - along with the rest of Sheila Dixon's Cleaner Greener Baltimore initiative.
"Baltimore is considered a 'green' city, which 20 years ago would have seemed impossible," Roby says.
Roby would ask Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to make the city greener still, and to understand why Baltimore must embrace the color and the concept.
The new mayor, Roby says, must make sure the city's tree canopy continues to spread, must create more green jobs, must repair city pipes that wastefully leak water, must require LEED standards for all city buildings, must pay attention to neglected city parks and must figure out how to pay for an improved storm water system.
In the past, Rawlings-Blake has introduced environmentally minded bills to improve enforcement in cases of illegal dumping and to create "green collar" jobs in the city.
Crime and Police
Check the statistics and focus more on quality-of-life crimes
By Justin Fenton
Radio host Ed Norris, a former Baltimore police commissioner and superintendent of the Maryland State Police, knows what it's like to be on a force amid political change.
"There's always turmoil, and it trickles down to the streets," Norris said.
He said that he believes a Rawlings-Blake mayoral administration might be wise to conduct an audit of the Police Department's crime statistics to see whether the numbers are giving commanders an accurate look at crime in Baltimore.
Norris urged a greater focus on quality-of-life crimes, such as panhandling and prostitution. "The murder rate ... has gone down, but the quality-of-life stuff puts people in fear and drives people away," he said.
Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has expressed confidence in closed-circuit cameras as a crime-fighting tool and urged the Police Department to consider text-messaging to alert citizens about crime in their neighborhoods.
She objected to a policy change in which the Police Department ended a decades-long practice of releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, accusing the department of "spinning" information. As a compromise, she has floated a concept used by the Chicago Police Department, in which internal investigative documents related to police shootings are posted online once the investigation is complete. The officers' names are blacked out.
Rawlings-Blake summoned police brass to a City Council hearing in March to question the effects of cuts in overtime spending, complaining that police were clearing fewer cases and arresting fewer people.
Mayor Sheila Dixon and Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III have preferred a "targeted" approach of identifying known offenders and have touted declines in the number of overall arrests, saying that mass arrests are not the way to go.
Fight for better, broader public transit
By Jill Rosen
Otis Rolley III, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, hopes the incoming mayor understands that for any city, transportation issues are critical and far-ranging, touching people's lives in dozens of ways.
"It can really be a catalytic investment in terms of transforming Baltimore," says Rolley, formerly Baltimore's planning director and chief of staff to Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Rolley would urge Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to use her office as a bully pulpit to improve bus service.
"Over 30 percent of Baltimore doesn't own a car," he says. "People are literally and figuratively stuck."
She also must ensure that the new fleet of buses for the Charm City Circulator run as smoothly and look as clean and enticing as people expect.
"We need to transform the way people look at the bus system ... so they don't see the buses as something for 'those people,' but something for all of Baltimore," he says.
Rolley would want Rawlings-Blake to push developments built around transit hubs, to make it easier for residents to leave their cars at home.
He'd want her to continue to lobby for the regional rail plan and make sure potholes are filled and traffic lights run in sequence.
Rawlings-Blake has not made transportation a campaign priority.
When city thrives, so does culture
By Jill Rosen
Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, would tell the mayor to remember that everything is connected and that the arts will only thrive if the rest of the city thrives.
"As Willy Don [Schaefer] used to say, 'everything is a priority,' " Vikan said. "A healthy city will support the arts."
He would like her to champion more cooperation between the arts and Baltimore's green spaces and to encourage bringing more culture into the schools.
And, of course, he hopes she'll keep the money coming.
"My hope would be that funding for the arts would be flat from last year," he said. "That's my letter to Santa."
Vikan sees Rawlings-Black at the museum with her family and at events that bring Baltimore together. "I don't doubt for a second that she sees [the arts] as integral to the quality of life of the city."
Rawlings-Blake made a recent splash when she successfully pushed for a bill that allows more live entertainment venues in parts of the city.
Forge stronger relationships between business, academia
By Andrea K. Walker
Baltimore has the foundation to create jobs, the new mayor just needs to build off those fundamentals, said J. Thomas Sadowski, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.
Sadowski, also Harford County's former head of economic development, recommends that Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake strengthen ties between private companies and higher education institutions, such as Johns Hopkins, to help nurture innovation and entrepreneurship.
The mayor could work with university-supported incubator programs to help develop small and minority business and with the city's bioparks to provide incentives to commercialize tech products.
"The more we can help cultivate entrepreneurship and the presence of that creative class, it will ultimately set the stage for good things going forward," Sadowski said.
Sadowski also said Rawlings-Blake should improve public transportation and continue efforts to reduce crime to lure more company headquarters. Public transportation also gives residents easier access to available jobs, he said.
The city should also further enhance its work with groups such as the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corp. to attract new investments and redevelopment projects. He pointed out that there is room for expansion and job creation at the city's port.
Rawlings-Blake has stood up for workers rights by protesting with union members and has been a proponent of development that would increase business in areas like tourism and bring jobs.
She recently joined with the rest of the council in rushing through legislation to designate half the city as a "recovery zone" and make it eligible for federal stimulus funds for construction projects.
Five years ago, Rawlings-Blake supported a proposed $305 million, publicly financed convention hotel. Proponents said it would create jobs and help boost the struggling convention business, but others questioned the public financing.
"How eager some of us are to doubt the future of Baltimore," she said about opponents at the time.
In 2007, she protested with Baltimore school bus drivers, aides and mechanics in an effort to save their jobs as the school system switched to a new contractor.
Connect with Alonso but let him do his job; keep micro-managers off board
By Childs Walker
As mayor, the best thing Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake can do for the school system is maintain a strong relationship with Superintendent Andrés Alonso, said former school board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman.
"He is an extremely strong figure, and he's shaking things up," he said. "Now is the time to leave well enough alone as long as he continues to do the right things."
With one open seat on the school board and two other members up for term renewal, Rawlings-Blake will have an early chance to make joint appointments with the governor - her most direct power over the school system. "She should appoint members of the school board who will be supportive of Alonso and not micro-manage," Hettleman said. "That's the most important thing she can do."
Beyond that, he said, Rawlings-Blake should fight for school funding in Annapolis and tout the improvements in Baltimore schools. She showed early signs of doing so in her remarks Thursday, praising the system's improved test scores and listing high-performing schools as a way to keep and attract residents.
"She can continue to attract people back to the schools just by talking about these things," Hettleman said.
City Council members play little role in shaping policy for Baltimore's public schools, but Rawlings-Blake has shown an interest in education befitting her lineage: Her father, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, was a major advocate for education funding and helped shape the 1997 policy shift that gave the mayor and governor joint power to appoint the city school board.
"She has good genes," Hettleman said. "You never know for sure what it means, but she comes from a family that's very dedicated to the well-being of children."
Rawlings-Blake pushed to increase funding for Teach for America to add more teachers to city schools. She has also called on the schools to focus on gang and violence prevention and to proactively assist at-risk students.
Hettleman remembered that when the school board faced questions about hiring Alonso because he was an outsider and not African-American, Rawlings-Blake supported Alonso. "That's a good sign," Hettleman said.
To avoid trouble, keep it 'all open and transparent'
By Scott Calvert
Even as she grapples with making the cash-strapped city government leaner, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake should work to make it cleaner, too, says former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a longtime transparency advocate.
"Ethics should be kept on the front burner and not the back burner of Baltimore City politics," said Lapides. He is a member of the Maryland State Ethics Commission and previously served on the city ethics board.
"It's in the public's mind," he said. "It should be in elected officials' minds as well."
One idea Lapides supports is remaking the five-member city ethics board. The mayor appoints or designates four members, with the city solicitor choosing the fifth. Lapides suggests letting the City Council pick two of the spots to reduce the mayor's influence. He recalls a case where three of five members recused themselves due to potential conflicts of interest, leaving the board unable to take up the case.
Lapides would like to see more city contracts publicly aired before the Board of Estimates. Contracts under $5,000 don't need approval from the spending board, a threshold Lapides deems too high: "It's just better to have it all open and transparent. You don't get into trouble that way."
Besides exploring other steps to beef up the ethics law, the new mayor should ensure that city employees and fellow elected officials realize what the law requires of them, Lapides said."Just make transparency your byword," he said. "If she does that, she'll be fine."
Rawlings-Blake has not been linked to ethically questionable dealings on the City Council, and she is known for filing detailed financial disclosures. Improving ethics in government has not been a legislative priority of hers.
Focus on three areas that cause residents harm
By Meredith Cohn
There are three main areas in public health that need continued vigilance, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, now Howard County's health officer after serving as Baltimore's health commissioner for 13 years.
The first is substance abuse, which has led to much of the violence in Baltimore. Next is a lack of primary care, contributing to obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the city. Third is the city kids' preparedness for school, including immunizations.
"[Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake] has been good on public-health issues already," he said. "But it's really important to continue focusing on big problems in the city, many which are interrelated. One very nice thing in the city is the tremendous health resources available."
Rawlings-Blake has spoken out for curbing the obesity epidemic, especially among youth. She supported banning trans fats in restaurants and smoking in public places. She was the main sponsor of a bill to require disclaimers on crisis pregnancy clinics that don't offer abortions.
Reach out to city's business leaders
By Edward Gunts and Julie Bykowicz
Baltimore's new mayor needs to show local business leaders that she appreciates their investment in the city and will work hard to address their concerns, said Donald C. Fry, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business leadership organization.
"She has to reach out to the business community to let them know she understands the important role business has for the future of the city," Fry said. "She has to show people who have made significant capital investments in the city that she understands them."
As she moves from the City Council to the mayor's office, Fry said, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake should contact business leaders and learn about their concerns. She also needs to thank them for investing in Baltimore and find out what the city can do to get them to stay and grow in Baltimore, whether that means improving infrastructure or beautifying public spaces, he said.
"Economic development is a competitive business," Fry said. "You continually need to reassure people that their efforts are appreciated and you are not taking them for granted."
Fry and other business leaders say Rawlings-Blake already knows much about the city's budgetary issues and business relationships from her tenure as City Council president and head of the city's spending body, the Board of Estimates, and that will be helpful in the transition.
As head of the city council, she took the lead in crafting a zoning bill permitting live entertainment in more city nightspots, has supported efforts to build a new downtown arena, sided with Roland Park residents who fought plans to develop part of Baltimore Country Club property and recently introduced legislation that would limit construction of cell phone towers in historic districts. At the same time, Fry said, "there are very different skills involved in being an effective legislator versus being an effective executive."
Don't raise taxes; dip into 'rainy day' fund
By Julie Scharper
As the city teeters under prodigious budget shortfalls, raising property taxes might appear to be a tempting option for the new mayor. But nothing could be more harmful to the city, said Baltimore-based economist Anirban Basu.
"Any increase to the city's tax rate would accelerate the exodus of taxpayers from Baltimore City and damage the city's ability to sustain its tax base," said Basu, the chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic and consulting firm.
Rather, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake must make painful cuts to services - downsizing city government at all levels - and generate revenue by creating a land bank to expedite the sale of vacant properties, Basu said. But she should avoid raising taxes at all costs.
"If people are told they have to pay $1 more for a gallon of milk, it would not generate as much outrage as if people were told they had to pay $1 more for city services," said Basu.
The Dixon administration made sweeping cuts to trim $60 million from the city's $2.3 billion budget, but the city will still fall short an estimated $50 million for this budget year. And the next fiscal year promises to be worse.
Rawlings-Blake should consider tapping into the city's $100 million "rainy day" fund if there are no other alternatives to raising taxes, Basu said.
"Normally I would caution against dipping into such a fund - it's the city's insurance, key to maintaining the city's bond rating," he said. "However, I think people would agree it's now raining."
As she takes the reins of the city, Rawlings-Blake should warn taxpayers that navigating tight economic times without major cuts should be considered a victory.
"If she is able to manage the city through these difficult times without raising taxes or significantly diminishing the quality of life, she will be viewed as a profoundly excellent mayor," Basu said. "And that will increase her chance of being re-elected."
Last year, Rawlings-Blake became the first council president in a decade to reject the mayor's proposed budget, saying it cut too deeply into recreation centers, pools and other programs. Instead, she pushed through cuts to the Mayor's Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, Cable and Communications and the inspector general's office. Last month, she held a hearing on the looming budget crisis. She has criticized the cost-saving measure of rolling closures of fire companies.
Past Baltimore Mayors
Make city cleaner and safer, find your own voice and don't forget your family
By Scott Calvert
Gov. Martin O'Malley, 1999-2007
"My advice to anyone who does the job of mayor, whether they do that job in Baltimore, Boston or any city in the world, is this: Make your city a cleaner city, a safer city and a city that becomes a better place for kids to grow up. Where businesses know they can invest their dollars and their hard work will be returned.
"If you make a city cleaner, safer and a better place for kids, the people of the city start to do the rest of the work themselves."
And in a reference to the recent hullabaloo over the city's attempt to levy an $800 minor privilege fee for the giant ornamental bird gracing Hampden's Cafe Hon, he advised: "Don't mess with the pink flamingos."
Kurt L. Schmoke, 1987-1999
"One [bit of advice] would be on a personal level. I would urge her to plan her schedule with her family to make sure that she leaves enough time for them, for family life. That's very important.
"It's a real challenge. I used to average about 60 invitations a day and we had to decide, my staff, which things I would go to. Often, family things would get pushed to a secondary position. That is not very good."
"The political - take Mayor D'Alesandro to lunch." That would be 80-year-old Thomas D'Alesandro III, mayor during the late 1960s. "He is not only a very wise person, but he has a perspective on that job that Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would benefit from hearing.
"He's seen it over a long period of time as a son of a mayor, as the council president, as a mayor himself during a transition period for the city, and then over the last few decades as a practicing lawyer and a private citizen.
"His views are really very insightful and helpful. I hope she could spend some time with him."
Any other advice?
"That's it. Everybody's got their own challenges, their own time in office. ... She's going to have to find her own voice now as an executive, and not a legislator. It has to be authentic, has to be hers."
Thomas D'Alesandro III, 1967-1971
"You've got to establish your priorities, and my priority would be to fight crime. That has so many different ramifications in so many different areas. It affects almost every walk of life and every aspect of life. It affects business, it affects education, it affects everything."
Clarification: This version of the article contains additional information regarding Rawlings-Blake's record on education. Earlier versions omitted this information.