1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
I am proud to enjoy a very successful career in the hotel industry. I was selected by my colleagues as Hotelier of the Year in 2005 by the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association (1). This award recognized not only my professional excellence but my service to the community in which my hotel was located. Over the past 20 years as a business professional, I have successfully managed budgets of significant size and met a payroll every week of my career. No other candidate in my race brings that kind of deep business experience and the responsibility of managing and employing a large staff.
I have also dedicated 10,000 hours over the past 10 years as a community leader in the dense, diverse and complex Mount Vernon neighborhood, helping to transform it from a struggling community to the vibrant success it is today. I have been elected by my community to three terms as the President of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association for which I have built a strong and active coalition of residents, businesses and institutions. I also have served for many years on the board of the Midtown Community Benefits District, where I am currently the chairman of this tax-funded organization with a budget of $1 million and a mission of providing clean and green services to the four communities of Midtown Baltimore.
District 12 has lacked energetic, innovative and responsive leadership for a very long time. The District, and the city, would benefit greatly from my hands-on leadership style. I have brought clear and visible results to my own community: cleaner and safer streets, healthy businesses, "community-desired" development, major investments and a connected, active community of residents, businesses and cultural institutions. I have negotiated complex agreements with the city for additional city services and capital investments, and, under my leadership, the first playground in the community's history and half a million dollars in private funding for family recreation was brought to our community.
I founded and continue to lead a nightly Segway security patrol of the Midtown communities, giving me a unique insight into public safety issues. I have a record of results that is unmatched and I demonstrate what hard work and vision can do for Baltimore neighborhoods. Our city and our city council could use a huge dose of roll-up-the sleeves passion and dedication that our former mayor William Donald Schaefer brought to city hall many years ago, I am very much that kind of leader, too.
I am running because Baltimore and its neighborhoods are my passion and where I want to direct my business skills, my decade of knowledge and experience in community leadership and my ability to develop alliances and partnerships to get the job done. I am running on no one's coat tails, and, as such, will be a truly new and independent voice for the people of District 12 and Baltimore City. District 12 needs and deserves a dedicated and accomplished community leader who has a decade of living, working, and serving with distinction in the District, and that leader is me.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
I have devoted ten years and over 10,000 hours as a community volunteer, working to transform Baltimore's diverse, dense and complex Mount Vernon community from a struggling neighborhood to the success it is today. I have extensive experience as a dedicated and seasoned community leader in dealing with public safety, clean and green initiatives, attracting development, investment and new businesses, building coalitions and alliances with other communities, city agencies and elected officials. I have closed problem businesses, brought the first playground in my community's history, and founded nightly security patrols. I've negotiated complex agreements with the city for improved services and capital investments. My priorities as a member of city council would be:
• Lowering residential property taxes
• Putting vacant properties back into productive use
• Re-inventing city government agencies to bring better service and greater efficiency
• Better public safety for all neighborhoods
• New city jobs going to city residents
• More recreational and educational options for youth
• Turning city development focus from the Harbor to the neighborhoods and entrepreneurs of the city
Having dealt with practically every agency of city government every day for the past ten years as a community leader, I can say with certainty that Baltimore's government needs to be re-envisioned and re-invented. We can and must do more with new technology, with employee accountability and incentive programs, and re-training all of our city employees to understand customer service and work efficiencies. I have a great deal of personal expertise in public safety, having worked hundreds of evenings and thousands of hours leading a Segway safety patrol. My background as a business person will be very important for budgeting, city personnel issues and training. We need to follow the example of Washington DC with high fines and fees to owners of vacant properties, and a first class land bank operation to liquidate vacant city-owned properties.
Other cities are dealing with many of the same issues that we are, and I will form a network of Best Practices Leaders from cities across the country to share this information. I have traveled extensively and I will continue bring strategies that work back to Baltimore. The abundance of vacant housing -- much of it owned by the city -- must be turned quickly into productive properties. Our development focus should turn from real estate by the Harbor to entrepreneurs and new businesses. Development should be shifted to communities like those in my district and the communities have to be included in this planning.
We have been very successful with bringing great development to my own community, but it takes outreach, marketing ability, and the willingness to work with developers from concept to completion. Development can be done without major tax breaks, and my community is proof of that.
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 founded and I continue to lead nightly Segway security patrols through the communities of Midtown Baltimore. Being on the streets each night with police officers has given me a very personal insight into the city's crime problems, something no one running for council or serving on the city council can claim. While it is impossible to address the complexities of crime fighting in a few sentences, I know that Baltimore's front line, its patrol officers, are creative, hard working and brave beyond anyone's measure. However, they lack resources and technology that other cities are using effectively. Another major concern that needs to be addressed is community/police relations. There tends to be animosity between the police and the citizens of Baltimore. Only by working together can we solve and prevent crimes. The feeling of distrust by the general public must be eliminated so we can get to the work of reducing crime. As a leader of our community's Citizens on Patrol group, we have had great success in reducing crime because our community works with the police, and the police with the community, to keep our neighborhood safer.
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 am very aware of this issue as my own community has successfully worked to attract and retain young families as residents and tax payers. As president of my community's neighborhood association, we raised half a million dollars in private funds to build our community's first recreation area for families. This amenity, plus several nearby charter schools have made it attractive for many of our families to stay in the city. However, we have much work to do to keep these families and their investment in the city. Dr. Alonzo is making strides, but we all know that there are ineffective departments in city administration that can be run better. Academically, we need to expand our vocational and technical offerings for high school students, carefully targeting the training we offer to enter the medical, high tech and IT fields where goods jobs are available for graduates. We should have ample training opportunities for high school students wanting to work in skilled trades. We should offer intensive remedial academic courses for every fourth and eighth grader who is not on par with state standards. Pre-schoolers in our poorest communities need access to the outstanding reading readiness programs of the Enoch Pratt Library system. Free book programs that are being operated on a small scale should get expanded funding from the many private foundations our area is fortunate to have. We also must increase the number of top public college preparatory schools to beyond the three we have. New York has had great success in opening public schools that are competitive with elite private schools. We can do that if our political leaders care to make it happen. No excuses. Excellence should be our standard. I have followed closely the mayoral control of the city school system in Washington DC. Regrettably, that has made the superintendent's position in DC vulnerable to whichever way the political winds seem to be blowing. I do not think mayoral control of the school system is the answer. However, I do want city council to have greater input on school board appointments. This is where we don't need well-meaning amateurs and campaign contributors to be sitting, but experts in education, business management and property management. These board members should report to the city council every week on a comprehensive list of school reform objectives. I am an experienced, hands-on community leader who is ready to roll up his sleeves on public education just as I have on every major issue facing my community.
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
We don't have $2 billion and, while the slots casino may provide some funds for this down the road, I'm not willing to gamble our children's future on it. So, we've got to begin to operate under a new paradigm. Charter schools will be one part of that and the fabulous Montessori Charter School in my district is a great example. One of the important lessons we have to learn from this school and others is the need to have parental, community and private business involvement. Having parents and neighbors painting the rooms, cleaning the windows and managing the front desk in the end helps to provide an excellent public education for our children.
We also have a problem with how we look at short-term maintenance vs capital improvements. We'll spend tens of thousands making the same repair over and over for years and decades when a capital improvement would be a much better investment. That is going to take new legislation to facilitate a long-term view of our major school investments.
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?
Yes, property taxes are a big issue in this year's election, but from what I have seen at City Hall, that could well be the full extent of it -- just fodder for stump speeches. The problem is not new. In the past four years numerous hearings have been held and nothing has been done. Blue ribbon panels have been commissioned and decommissioned and nothing done. Major studies have been conducted and they gather dust on the shelf. We're still at an astounding 2.2% tax rate on residential property. Look at DC with its residential property tax rate at less than a percent: They picked up over 30,000 new residents over the last decade while we lost 30,000. (2) We've got to get down to at least 1.5% to be competitive with other cities and it's going to take the kind bold new leadership I bring to break through the gridlock on this critical matter.
The first thing I would do is introduce legislation requiring that all work of the State Assessment office must be audited by a representative agent of the City, and that the City launch reverse-appeals on commercial properties that are under-assessed. Can you believe this: we've got a state agency responsible for determining the basis for over $700 million of Baltimore's revenue using commercial assessors who aren't certified in their trade and we don't even have a full-time independent watch-dog challenging their numbers!
If you look at the data from the National Taxpayer's Conference that was presented at a September 2008 City Council hearing on property taxes (3,4), you will see Baltimore's homeowners are actually subsidizing commercial property taxes. We were found to be one of only three of the top 50 US cities to do this to our homeowners. Although the homeowner cap helps this from being even worse, I believe that mismanaged commercial assessment practices at the State Assessment Office are at the bottom of this problem. With nearly $75 million in annual revenue being left on the table as a result, I see a major opportunity. Our residential base continues to dwindle while we continue to miss out on one of the biggest migrations back to the cities and to urban life in history.
The second thing I would do is to implement fees and fines on abandoned and long-vacant properties. These properties result in the highest demand on city services and devalue surrounding properties, yet they pay the lowest taxes. Revision of the tax code to address this as is done elsewhere is a state-level process that I will fully encourage and support, but in the meantime we've got to get to work with the tools we do have -- fees and fines to balance the inequity.
You can overtax your citizens, you can unfairly tax your citizens -- but we're trying to pull off both and it's clearly not working for us.
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?
Being a community leader for the past ten years has given me a unique insight into city spending. While there are glimmers of excellence here and there in city government, they are just glimmers. For example, BDC, our development agency, is sitting in expensive office space arranging tax breaks for big developers. There is a long list of Land Use Agreements with developers giving them unending rights to the property, yet the property remains undeveloped while the city pays the carrying cost for years on end. This is something we just have to be smarter about. That is an example of an unnecessary and counterproductive cost I'd want to get a handle on immediately.
Obviously, I think BDC should be reorganized to better serve and benefit the entire city. Other examples? The city uses "emergency" contractors to perform non-emergency work at rates that are multiple times the market rate. Parks and recreation has duplicated work in my own community that was already done by a non-profit group. We have management in our city agencies that fights communities instead of working with them. Our agencies need more customer service and more business management. Outstanding management and customer service are at the heart of my career. I will spearhead the re-engineering of Baltimore agencies by doing what I do best, rolling up my sleeves and getting results. We don't need research papers, statistical analyses or PhDs to know that our city agencies are below par. Those of us who run communities know what needs to be done.
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?
I believe new city jobs should go to city residents. This is standard policy in most cities, it should be in Baltimore, too. Economic development comes with making our city appealing to top industries and their workers. We have brought success in the form of new businesses and new investment in my own community by first taking care of the basics: sanitation, public safety, and better public spaces. Schools are also key in this mix. Instead of tax breaks to developers on the Harbor, incentives to entrepreneurs should be the name of the game. Training programs should be evaluated for their effectiveness at training and placing students into available jobs. Keeping our best and brightest after graduation should also be a priority. What do most of our top college graduates do the week after they graduate? They leave Baltimore. Extensive internship programs and partnerships will get students off their campuses, into offices, around the city, creating connections and potential career paths that they would not have had otherwise. This kind of innovation costs us nothing. But it does take a team player with history of partnership building to get in and get results. We have a general lack of leadership in employment growth issues in Baltimore, but I am eager to take a lead on this as a member of the city council.
District 12: Jason Curtis
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