Rawlings-Blake said she had no choice but to trim recreation and summer jobs programs during two consecutive years of budget shortfalls. She said her challengers' plans to boost funding for youth programs were unrealistic.

"My opponents have been extremely diligent with pointing out Baltimore's extremely obvious problems," she said. "They're saying they want more of everything, but they want to make irresponsible tax cuts."

Despite a $65 million budget gap, Rawlings-Blake raised the city's operating budget by one percent to $1.3 billion this year. Funding for police climbed by $3.9 million to $356.9 million, while the budget for recreation centers dropped by a half million to $10.2 million.

Rawlings-Blake also touted a law providing tougher penalties for gun violations that was passed by the General Assembly this year. Rawlings-Blake was the third Baltimore mayor to lobby for such a law — and the first to succeed.

Webster, the Hopkins criminologist, praised Rawlings-Blake for sticking with an approach to crime that appears to be working.

"We had gone through so many different commissioners, each with his own particular view and approach, and it's nice to see a situation where you've had a fairly consistent approach for some extended period of time," he said.

Both Pugh and Rolley have advocated some creative plans for cutting back crime.

Rolley proposed levying a $1 tax on bullets, which he said was "a bit of a gut reaction" prompted by the story of a four-year-old who was hit in the leg by a stray bullet at the Fourth of July celebration at the Inner Harbor. He also proposed making the possession of a small quantity of marijuana a summary offense, punishable by a citation, but not jail time.

Webster lauded Rolley's proposal.

"I'm glad to hear that at least someone is putting some new ideas on the table for discussion," he said. "This needs to be looked at from a public health perspective, and not just using the law enforcement hammer."

Pugh said she would create a master plan for safety for the city, prioritizing streets and corners that need to be made more safe.

She hopes to expand a program called "Citizens on Patrol Without Borders," in which residents patrol neighborhoods other than their own and teach members of other communities how to start patrol groups.

Young, the home improvement worker, says city leaders must act quickly to create opportunities for ex-offenders like him who wish to earn an honest living.

"You never know what you'll earn one week to a next," without a steady income, he said.

Young said he's thought of driving for a sedan service, but has stayed away because he fears the temptation to ferry drugs to earn more money would be too great.

"Everybody knows somebody in the game if you're out here," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.