By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
11:05 PM EST, February 13, 2012
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expressed concerns about her schools chief's proposal to borrow $1.2 billion to fix Baltimore's crumbling school buildings, touting her own more modest plan as realistic in her State of the City address Monday.
The mayor said she would introduce legislation next week to increase the city's bottle tax from 2 cents to 5 cents in 2013, a source of revenue that is key to her plan to leverage $300 million in bonds to address an estimated $2.8 billion in needed repairs to schools.
"This is a big bump-up for our schools, and it's real," she said of her plan.
Rawlings-Blake's third annual State of the City remarks revolved around ways to improve city life to reach a goal she announced in her December inauguration speech: increasing the city's population by 10,000 families over the next decade, which would reverse more than a half century of population decline.
She proposed extending the Purple Line of the free Charm City Circulator bus to the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, installing 30 more police cameras in Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods that have seen a surge in crime and creating a web site to gather ideas from residents on how to boost the city's population.
The mayor also reiterated several proposals she has laid out over the past two years, including lowering property tax rates for owner-occupied homes by 9 cents over nine years and speeding sales of vacant homes.
"We must do what is necessary to keep current and newly relocated families here, reduce the number of working families moving out, show them the hope that staying in Baltimore is worth it, and that it is in the best interest of their family," Rawlings-Blake said.
But she also called on residents to demonstrate personal responsibility – by keeping children off the streets at night, cleaning front stoops and backyards, reporting crime to police and "holding accountable" litterers.
She spoke of her pride in seeing her daughter attend a city public school, but said she has grave concerns about the system's aging buildings.
"I'm truly embarassed by the physical condition of some of our schools – too many without air-conditioning to keep kids in the classroom on hot spring days; too few computer labs; too many with water fountains that you can't drink from," Rawlings-Blake said. "Our kids deserve better."
Her remarks about how to pay for school construction underscored an emerging split between her adminstration and schools chief executive officer Andres Alonso's plans.
She called on the City Council to speedily ratify her proposed hike to the bottle tax which she says will be introduced to the legislative body Monday.
The mayor hopes to raise the 2 cent tax to 5 cents in 2013 and devote the proceeds — along with 10 percent of the revenue from the planned slots casino and $12 million saved by a recalculation of the city's teacher pension contribution — to floating bonds for school construction.
She had harsh words for Alonso's plan, which would combine both state and city funds to leverage $1.2 billion on bonds – a proposal that has been pushed by Transform Baltimore, a coalition of education advocacy groups spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's false to say that we can borrow a billion dollars, but that we won't have to pay it back one way or another," Rawlings-Blake said.
Rawlings-Blake cited concerns raised by state fiscal policymakers about the plan, which would use bond proceeds to float additional bonds. She cautioned that one of lessons from the global economic slowdown has been that "over-leveraging has serious risks that we must guard against."
Alonso has been lobbying state lawmakers to pledge $32 million annually to city schools – the average amount of money provided for school construction and maintenance in recent years – and to remove requirements that dictate how the money can be spent. The state currently funds specific projects, such as a new cafeteria or playing field.
Under Alonso's plan, Rawlings-Blake's revenue package would be combined with the $32 million in state funds and $17 million in bond proceeds that the city dedicates to school construction each year.
Foes of the bottle tax, such as retailers and beverage lobbyists, are likely to push hard against the bill in the council. And the educational advocates, who had rallied around Alonso's $1.2 billion plan, are likely to be lukewarm advocates for the bottle tax.
One council member proposed a different allocation of funds Monday. Councilman Bill Henry said he planned to introduce a bill to split the casino proceeds evenly between a property tax reduction and school construction. He also said he would call for Alonso to present his plan at an education committee hearing, so that legislators could better understand the role of the bottle tax as a funding stream.
Alonso shrugged off Rawlings-Blake's remarks, insisting that he and the mayor are united behind the same purpose and that her proposal is a part of his larger plan.
"I have heard the mayor signing onto the plan many times," said Alonso, who recently signed a four-year contract. "My job in the next four years is to leave a legacy that over the next 20 years, kids are going to have what they need."
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