Crime, economy top list of concerns

While concern about the economy has grown since the last mayoral election, crime remains the top worry among likely voters in Baltimore's Democratic primary next month.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents to The Sun Poll rated crime, criminal justice or drugs as the most important challenge facing the city. That is down from 68 percent four years ago. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents ranked the economy, jobs or high taxes as the biggest challenge.

"Crime has been an ongoing problem," said Florine Robinson, 76, of Gwynn Oak in Northwest Baltimore. Her brother was murdered in the city, she said, and she's been mugged several times.

Others link crime with the lack of jobs. Joyce Lewis, 61, said, "All these young men hanging on corners" in her East Baltimore neighborhood turn to crime because the city would rather "just let them kill themselves" than provide training for high-skill jobs.

With the recovery from recession weak and unemployment still high, pollster Steve Raabe called it "atypical" for any other concern to eclipse pocketbook issues.

"The economy would be far and away the top number anywhere else in the state," said Raabe, president of OpinionWorks in Annapolis, which conducted the telephone survey Aug. 22-24 for The Baltimore Sun. The opinion poll, which surveyed 742 likely voters in the Democratic primary, has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.

The numbers reveal a major shift since The Sun asked the same question in 2007. While the number of respondents who said crime is the city's greatest challenge fell, the number who said the economy or taxes is the most important issue rose to 28 percent from 5 percent.

Raabe said the shift reflects "a combination of progress on the crime front and burgeoning worry on the jobs front."

While Baltimore remains one of the most violent cities in the United States, homicides and other violent crimes have fallen drastically over the past four years, mirroring a national trend.

In 2007, with killings on pace to exceed 300 for the year, crime was a major issue in Baltimore's mayoral campaign. With 2011 on pace for closer to 200 homicides, the candidates have focused on economic development, property taxes and schools.

A growing number of likely Democratic primary voters surveyed said taxes are Baltimore's most important challenge. Property tax rates in the city are the highest in the state and are double those in Baltimore County.

Still, just 14 percent of the poll respondents said they would use most or all of the city's slot machine revenue to reduce the property tax rate, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed.

By law, the city may use revenue from the casino only to build schools or to reduce property taxes. No developer has been selected for the proposed slots casino in Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake has proposed using 90 percent of the slots revenue to cut property taxes for homeowners by 9 percent over nine years.

When poll respondents were asked how they would divide the money, 54 percent said they would split it evenly between tax reduction and school construction. Twenty-five percent said they would spend most or all of it to build schools. Fourteen percent said they would use most or all of it to cut property taxes.

Opponents of the mayor's plan include Mae Kastor, 79, of Canton, who served recently on an education task force — and was horrified by the physical condition of the city's schools.

"If this is going to be a huge pot of money, let's use it," Kastor said.

Kenneth Barnes, 74, of Bolton Hill said lower taxes "would make a real difference" in persuading residents to stay in the city.

While nearly all of the likely Democratic primary voters — 96 percent of the respondents — had heard about the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, set for next weekend, they are divided nearly evenly about it. Thirty-eight percent had a favorable opinion of the event; 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

Paulette Suell, 61, of East Baltimore said many residents cannot afford the tickets, which range in cost from $20 for a one-day pass on Friday to $895 for a three-day pass to the VIP Balcony Club.

"You have to think about the people who live here," she said.

But others are excited. Robinson, the Gwynn Oak resident, called the three-day event "a great idea."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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