1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
During my two terms on the City Council, I have authored successful legislation addressing key issues such as targeting illegal guns, abating nuisance properties, establishing green building standards, and regulating property taxes. My legislative work is based directly on the issues I hear about from First District residents every day.
I chair the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee and the Public Safety Committee and serve as Vice-Chair on the Land Use and Transportation Committee. Additionally, I represent the City Council on the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation and at the Maryland Municipal League.
For 40 years, I have been an activist working with community, cultural and faith organizations. I have used this experience to bring people together over common issues such as neighborhood land use decisions, park maintenance and risks to public safety. I am also a lawyer, and have personally represented neighborhood groups in court and at Liquor and Zoning Board hearings to address nuisance properties.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
When I first ran for City Council, I pledged to work toward a First District that is "Safe and Smart, Green and Growing." I have been able to accomplish a number of things in each of those areas and will continue to do so.
The First District, Southeast Baltimore, is not the typical Council district. It is a growth area where more people have been moving in than moving out for over 10 years. This creates different challenges. Quality of life issues such as parking, noise, trash and traffic are of great concern. It is my belief that to continue the growth of the First District and promote growth in the city as a whole, the most important things we must accomplish are to make people feel truly safe in their homes and neighborhoods and to provide a high-quality education for their children. While we must find a way to achieve significant property tax reductions (discussed in greater detail below), doing so will be irrelevant if we cannot provide these two things and create an ever-increasing quality of life in our neighborhoods.
3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you advocate for to improve public safety in the city?
I do support Commissioner Bealefeld's focus on "bad guys with guns." Additionally, I have advocated for increasing the number of beat cops, particularly foot patrol, dedicated to specific areas. I am a strong proponent of community policing.
I further believe that the City can and should promote public safety by addressing conditions that leave our neighborhoods vulnerable to crime. Doing so before they become an issue for the police is key. Controlling problem establishments, addressing illegal dumping, properly enforcing the Housing Code, and providing adequate street lighting are all examples of ways that we can do so. Finally, District Court Judges must be educated about the importance of enforcing the laws that address quality of life crimes such as dumping, abandoned and/or vacant properties, etc.
4. Do you support the recent reforms in the Baltimore City school system? Do you believe any changes are needed in the schools' governance structure (such as direct mayoral control or an elected school board)?
I support Dr. Alonso and his approach. I do not, at this time, support an elected School Board (full or partial) although I am open to further discussions as to its potential merit. I am uncertain about mayoral control.
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
Our needs in this matter far exceed what can be provided from our current funding models. I am proud to have been the primary co-sponsor of Council President Young's historic legislation giving the City Council the power to dedicate funding to school facilities improvements.
As proud as I am of this initiative, it is clear that this is not a silver bullet to solve the facilities issue. Citywide, our schools require $2.8 billion to be brought up to ideal conditions. Doing so will require that we fight for increased State and Federal funding, explore alternative financing options, pursue public-private partnership, etc. Every option must be in the table as we seek to address what I believe to be a crisis in our public education system.
Additionally, I will continue to work individually with the schools in the First District to meet their specific needs. I have helped the Patterson Park Public Charter School gain the assistance of the Baltimore City Public School System in obtaining a $13 million dollar loan for construction, allowing the school to undertake much-needed projects such as cafeteria construction. I have also been an active participant in Hampstead Hill Academy's successful efforts to construct of an early learning wing. I have encouraged public-private partnerships to help meet smaller-scale facility needs in other schools throughout the district.
6. Property taxes have become a major issue in this year's election. Do you believe the city's tax rate needs to be cut? If so, by how much, and what steps would you take to keep the city's budget in balance while lowering the rate?
Baltimore City needs to reduce its dependency on the real property tax and the burden our high tax rates place on homeowners. I have been a leading voice on the City Council for property tax reduction, but I do not believe that it can be undertaken responsibly without first having certain systems in place. This term, I wrote and introduced a Council resolution asking the State to pass enabling legislation allowing the City to tax uninhabitable properties at a higher rate than occupied properties. Doing so would accomplish two things: First, it would eliminate the incentive for absentee property owners to leave their properties in disrepair. Second, it would also require that these properties, which cost the City money in additional resources, contribute their fair share. While the resulting State legislation did not pass, I believe that other elected officials, both on the State and City level, are growing to realize the necessity of this approach.
Another major issue for the City is the high percentage of property owned by government agencies, institutions such as universities or hospitals, or other non-profits. As a result, the remaining properties are carrying the entire tax burden. I have been working extensively with the Finance Department to identify properties that have been incorrectly identified as tax-exempt and to pursue other ways of ensuring that these entities contribute their fair share. Additionally, we need to call upon the State for the authority to reduce the number of exemptions given in Baltimore City.
7. The city has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. If that trend continues, what top priorities would you protect from cuts? In what areas would you pursue spending reductions?
We could save dollars by focusing on preventive action rather than corrective reaction. While it sounds trite, the adage that "you can pay me now or pay me later but, you will always pay me more if you pay me later" certainly applies to government. We can apply this principle by continuing to invest on the front end of issues: Investing in youth education and recreation is the most important example of this. We should also be providing street sweeping to reduce the costly process of removing debris from the water; providing sanitation inspectors to stop illegal dumping instead of repeatedly cleaning up the same problem stops; etc.
For many years, the City has been the employer of first resort. While this has given many people jobs, it has also contributed the budget problem that we are facing. During the FY11 budget discussions, it was implied that many of the jobs in Water & Wastewater could be automated. This should be investigated.
Public employee unions are extremely important; however, when their contracts come up, they should be renegotiated ab initio.
8. Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade. What would you do to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents?
Workforce development is among the most important things that we can do right now. Both in the public schools and through employment development centers, we need to be providing people with educations that are not only the best available, but are also appropriate to current and future industries. This will make our area not only more marketable to those industries seeking employees, but also help ensure that the new jobs created will be filled by those who live here in the City.
In addition, the City should fight for increases in federal and state dollars in at least three areas, all of which would create hundreds (if not thousands) of long-term jobs for the building and related trades. First, we need to seek funding--$2.8 billion--for school construction and renovation. Second, we need to move ahead with construction and implementation of the Red Line--approximately $2.5 billion-- which must be kept underground along both Edmondson Avenue and Boston Street. Finally, we need to seek funding--approximately $1 billion--for the reconstruction of the Howard Street tunnel to accommodate double stacking, which, in addition to jobs created to do the work itself, will also accomplish the critical task of retaining and expanding port-related employment.
There has been a great deal of discussion about including local hire provisions in City contracts and as a requirement for City aid. As chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, I have been actively involved in the efforts to determine how such provisions can be implemented. Unfortunately, many of the models that other cities have tried have been struck down in Court. However, I will continue to investigate those models that may be more feasible and attempt to implement them in a way that would reduce the likelihood of their putting the City at risk.
District 1: James B. Kraft
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