www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/editorial/bal-sun-candidates-otis-rolley,0,2870355.story

baltimoresun.com

Otis Rolley

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1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve as mayor.

My passion is city planning. After graduating from MIT, I made Baltimore my home and went on to become the nation's youngest Director of City Planning at 29. Under my leadership, Baltimore adopted its first Comprehensive Master Plan in nearly 40 years, the first to be adopted by both the Planning Commission and City Council in Baltimore's history.

As Mayor, I would use my experience in city planning to jumpstart Baltimore's transformation. We need to look at our city as a whole and bring our neighborhoods ahead along with our downtown. We haven't had a coherent economic development plan in 30 years because the current administration has operated more like a real estate development agency instead of implementing an overall citywide strategy.

I know the value of neighborhoods and what they contribute to the unique fabric of a city. Baltimore is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and as Mayor, I'll equitably distribute resources throughout our city to move all of us forward.

2. Why do you want to be mayor? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?

I've lived the best and the worst of Baltimore, and I believe I'm the only candidate who has what it takes to make Baltimore -- all of Baltimore -- great again. I beat the odds because people believed in me, and I want to be the leader who helps Baltimore beat the odds.

I grew up poor in a dysfunctional family, attended a failing public school, and lived in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and violence - but I got a chance because people believed in me. Because of them, I went to college and eventually graduated with a Masters from MIT. After moving to Baltimore, I became the youngest City Planning Director in the nation and worked to draft Baltimore's first Comprehensive City Plan in 40 years.

I'm not a professional politician, and I'm the only candidate who has real plans to improve our schools, create jobs, clean up our streets, and make neighborhoods a priority. The other candidates have had their chance, and we haven't seen any results. We can't change Baltimore until we change the people in City Hall. Baltimore needs someone who believes in it, just as people believed in me -- not more of the same.

If elected Mayor, my priority would be reversing Baltimore's population loss. People want to live here, but bad policies have made it too hard for them. As Mayor, I would focus on the quality of life issues that can make or break a city -- education, jobs, and crime.

3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you pursue to improve public safety in the city?

Though I support its efforts, the current administration's crime-fighting strategy has failed to yield results. Baltimore is still one of the most violent cities in the nation, and our murder rate routinely ranks among the top 10. The Mayor frequently points to the slight drop in the crime as proof that her strategies are working, but crime is one area of city life where "better" isn't good enough.

By working with the community and utilizing more efficient and effective policing techniques, I'll move aggressively to implement programs and policies that will turn around Baltimore's crime rate. If elected, my crime agenda will lead to a 20 percent reduction in violent crime in my first term.

As Mayor, I will prioritize tracking, arresting, and prosecuting violent offenders and drug traffickers; focus on gun crime, including illegal and straw purchases. I will also model a Baltimore-based program off of Boston's successful "Ten Point Plan" that integrates churches and faith-based agencies in public safety plans with the goal of reducing violence through mediation and youth mentoring.

In addition to making it harder for repeat, violent criminals to operate, we also need to create real opportunities for Baltimore's youth and ex-offenders. If Baltimore is to be a great city again, we need to balance removing the most violent from our streets while investing in our future. As Mayor, I will stop the cycle of recidivism by increasing employment among ex-offenders and fully funding summer and after-school job programs.

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)?

It's obvious that reforms to the City school system, while well-intentioned, aren't working, and our children are continuing to suffer. Last year, a full 90 percent of schools didn't meet state requirements, and just 39 percent of graduating seniors are prepared for college or the workforce. To reverse these trends, we need to fundamentally rethink how Baltimore City Schools operates.

The current split control of Baltimore City Schools leaves everyone with an opinion, but no one to provide direction and increase accountability. As Mayor, I would seek to return control of the schools to the City, a proposal favored by now-Governor Martin O'Malley when he was Mayor. While Annapolis can and should be doing more to help our schools, we can't receive additional support without developing clear strategies for changing our own inadequacies. The City must be directly accountable to voters for the successful implementation of those strategies.

Mayoral control of local schools has been shown to be a good way to increase accountability and student performance. Cities across the country, including Boston, Chicago, and Washington, DC, have successfully returned to mayoral control.

Under this system, I wouldn't attempt to run the schools or dictate curriculum; rather, I would hire a professional educator to run the school system. Working with a mayoral appointed, City Council confirmed seven-member School Board, the Baltimore City Schools' Chief Executive Office would also be subject to City Council confirmation and serve a five-year term. Board members would be appointed to staggered three-year terms.

The CEO would be judged by school attendance, achievement of common core state standards, high school graduation rates, college readiness, and graduates' ability to meet the needs of employers. The CEO will be required to involve parents, teachers, and community and business leaders in the planning and implementation of new school policies and in encouraging students to stay in school and excel.

If elected, I would also seek to change the state charter law to allow for teachers and administrators to be employees of charter operators, not Baltimore City Schools. This would be done with guarantees crafted in law that all City Schools charter operators must be union neutral. Finally, to eliminate waste and ensure economies of scale, I will have City Schools offer optional central office functions to public charter schools. Doing so will allow both City Schools and public charter schools to build and benefit from economies of scale and provide additional revenue to City Schools.

5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?

A school's physical environment has a direct, measurable impact on the performance level of students and teachers. Outdated buildings, without good science and computer labs or libraries, limit what and how we can teach today's students for tomorrow's jobs. Last year, 45 schools were forced to close for nearly 35 days because of maintenance problems ranging from electricity shortages to carbon monoxide leaks. Despite these alarming conditions, the Mayor has repeatedly delayed the release of her plan to deal with our schools' crumbling infrastructure. Baltimore's children deserve better, and as Mayor, I will prioritize the rehabilitation and replacement of schools based on need, condition, and enrollment.

Baltimore should follow the lead of other successful school systems, which have created public-private partnerships to construct news schools and allow educators to focus on teaching our children instead of managing the construction and operation of buildings. The use of public-private partnerships for school design, construction, and operation has been successful at building and managing state-of-the-art schools in other school districts and should be used in Baltimore. If elected, I will use public-private partnerships to build or renovate at least 50 schools in 10 years.

Baltimore City Schools would employ a "sale/lease back" model in which the ownership of the school buildings would be transferred to a private consortium, which would rebuild City Schools' facilities. Once completed, City Schools would lease the buildings back from the private consortium in long-term capital leases. The buildings would revert to full City Schools control at the end of the lease term. Any land or building sites not necessary for City Schools would be redeveloped for other uses, but the taxes generated from those sites would be a dedicated revenue stream to help defray the cost of the City Schools' long-term leases.

The public-private partnership model has worked in other districts, including nearby DC. While public-private partnerships are complicated, the long-term financial benefits to taxpayers are compelling. To ensure the program works effectively, I will immediately allocate $1 million -- split evenly among the City, the State, and City Schools -- to fund the due diligence necessary for a large-scale P3 effort for school construction in Baltimore. My proposal for a P3 would extend to the management and operation of school buildings as well. Taking this function off the plate of City Schools administrators will allow them to concentrate on solving education problems and improving student outcomes.

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?

The biggest threat to Baltimore's future is its continuing loss of population. Without enough residents, we won't have the tax base needed to provide critical city services, improve education, and rebuild our broken neighborhoods. If we're going to keep the residents we have and attracting new ones, we need to dramatically cut property taxes.

The political establishment has argued against property tax reductions because the City "can't afford it," but that's only true if Baltimore continues doing what it's been doing for generations: providing services with little regard to whether those services are actually being delivered efficiently and effectively. The Mayor has pinned her hopes for property tax reductions on a casino that hasn't been formally bid on despite extensions and concessions. Under her plan, the City is literally years away from receiving any relief, and given the underperformance of the state's existing casinos, even this meager reduction is an unwise bet.

In comparison, I would move quickly to fix Baltimore's broken property tax system and cut the property tax rate for every residential property owner. By establishing a multi-tiered rate that protects property owners and reduces blight, my plan will reduce the property tax rate by more than 50 percent for the vast majority of residents. I would also provide significant incentives for converting vacant office space to residences and finding other productive uses for vacant buildings. My plan allows Baltimore to responsibly cut taxes while providing real incentives for new residents and businesses.

If elected, I would first streamline Baltimore's assessment and enforcement operations to ensure that all properties are taxed fairly. Immediately upon taking office, I will conduct a census to review the condition, use, and tax status of all properties in the City. I will also make code enforcement a renewed priority of the Department of Housing and Community Development so that quality homeowners aren't penalized while those who take value from neighborhoods through neglect and abandonment do so without consequences.

After reevaluating Baltimore's properties, I will launch a tiered system of tax rates that will dramatically reduce the burden on tax residents while continuing to provide stable, reliable city revenue.

Conduct a census of all properties in the City. Immediately upon taking office, I will have the condition, use, and tax status of all properties in the City reviewed and made available.

Cut property taxes for every homeowner -- most by over 50 percent. I will create a tiered system of tax rates that will dramatically reduce the burden on residents while continuing to provide stable, reliable city revenue. The new tax rates will maintain approximately 75 percent of the City's real property tax revenue before any increased taxes and fees for vacant or blighted property or additional revenues from a growth in population or property values take effect. In year three of the plan, property taxes would be reduced for all Baltimore homeowners, and the rate would fall by 0.146 every year for eight years.

Raise taxes and fees on vacant and blighted property to encourage stabilization. I will give absentee and negligent property owners one years' notice to address their problem properties before new, higher rates and fees kick in. By cleaning and maintaining a vacant lot, owners would see an immediate tax cut.

Increase code enforcement. I will ensure that code enforcement is a renewed priority of the Department of Housing and Community Development so that quality homeowners are no longer penalized while those who take value from neighborhoods through neglect and abandonment do so without consequences.

Provide a 10-year property tax abatement for new conversions and rehabs. I will move to create a 10-year property tax abatement -- a full abatement -- of taxes levied on improvements for offices and hotels that are converted into condos and primary residences. Builders and subsequent unit owners will still have to pay property taxes on the old value of the property, but the improvements would be tax-free for 10 years.

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?

Baltimore's budget shortfalls impact us all, but there are certain segments of our city that can't afford to go without. If elected, I would invest in Baltimore's children, protecting funding for our schools and restoring funding for recreation centers, pools, and after schools programs and summer jobs. No matter what our city's financial future looks like, we can't expect a recovery if we abandon our children.

Instead of sacrificing our children to stretch our budget, I would look at existing city projects to see what's working and what isn't. The current administration has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on ill-conceived development projects, and stakes future growth on entertainment options like the IndyCar race. If we were to review these projects and eliminate whatever isn't a proven money-maker, we could plug the holes in our budget and fund the projects that matter. As Mayor, I would do an audit of all City developments and projects that are intended to create revenue and shut down those that don't. In tough times, we can't afford to continue throwing money after foolhardy projects while our residents suffer.

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?

Baltimore has not had a coherent economic development plan in over 30 years. Our economic development agency has operated more like a real estate development agency and has failed to recognize that the number one priority in economic development is fostering an environment that allows the private sector to create and sustain jobs.

The City, through its capital investments, has bet the proverbial farm on two sectors: real estate development and tourism. Though both are important parts of any municipal economy, they cannot provide the revenue to move Baltimore's economy forward alone. We have been reactionary to the whims of the real estate market and specific development projects, many of which were not part of an overall citywide strategy.

As Mayor, I will implement a 21st-century economic strategy that will focus on seven key industrial sectors:

— Health and human services;

— Computers, Internet, data and software services;

— Bioscience and biotechnology;

— Port and port-related services;

— Green manufacturing;

— Real estate development and construction; and — Tourism.

Of special concern and focus will be supporting businesses in neighborhoods, small and start-up businesses, and those owned and operated by minorities and women.

9. Do you support construction of the light rail Red Line? If so, what would you do to mitigate concerns in some neighborhoods about the impact of the project? What other changes to the Baltimore mass transit system would you pursue to provide transportation options for those who lack access to a car?

As past president and chief executive officer of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, I led a coalition of area business, civic, environmental, and philanthropic leaders dedicated to improving and expanding transit and transportation options for the people of Central Maryland. While at the CMTA, I built support for the Red Line, and I believe still believe in its merits.

Not only will the Red Line make travel in heavily congested corridors easier, faster, and more affordable, it will create Baltimore's first comprehensive transit system. The Red Line will ease transportation within our city, providing an important incentive for those looking to make Baltimore their home. The Red Line represents one of the most exciting projects Baltimore has had in decades, and we can't afford to sit on the sidelines while other cities advance past us.

That said, there was a long and thoughtful process that went into the creation of the community compact. If this project is not constructed in a way that is responsive and respectful of the communities serviced by the Red Line, the project will not proceed.

Although I stand behind transportation innovation like the Red Line, I don't believe Baltimore needs a dramatic overhaul of its public transportation system; instead, I would advocate for modernization of existing systems. We should ease the use of public transportation systems by focusing on customer service and ensuring that our existing systems keep pace with changing times. One simple change I would advocate for would be improvements to the MTA's Web site. For a visitor or new resident who is trying to get from Point A to Point B, the MTA Web site is a point of frustration; the maps are unreadable, outdated, or incorrect. As Mayor, I would work with transportation officials to improve the MTA experience to offer better service to Baltimore's residents, commuters, and visitors.

10. Do you support the Greater Baltimore Committee's proposal for an expanded convention center/arena/hotel complex downtown? If not, what alternative, if any, do you support for replacing 1st Mariner Arena?

The timing is not correct. Given competing demands for limited public resources, I believe there is better return on investment to the City with other investments.

11. Do you support current plans for redevelopment of the West Side Superblock and the State Center office complex?

I believe both of these projects have been stalled because of a lack of Mayoral leadership. The SuperBlock project is being stalled because no one has compelled the two sides to sit down and come to an agreement. The State Center project is being blocked because the downtown building owners do not believe there will be enough interest in their buildings if new commercial space is added at the State Center location. I have rarely heard of something that as clearly states a group's lack of faith in the city's future. If the current Mayor had an aggressive job creation program the downtown developers would have little reason to be concerned and there'd be no reason to file these lawsuits. Instead, she has sat back, content to cut deals with connected developers and manage our City's decline. I also have concerns about the process that was followed.

12. Do you support the city's plans for a slot machine gambling parlor near the downtown stadium complex? Would you pursue any changes to the program, either local or state legislation? Would you support an eventual expansion to table games there or elsewhere in the city?

I don't agree with the current administration's decision to make slots a centerpiece of Baltimore's economic strategy, but if we're going to have them, we have a significant responsibility to do them right. We need to be certain slots are part of a world-class entertainment facility, that they generate substantial tax revenues, and that they benefit Baltimore's neighborhoods and residents.

The fact that the last round of bidding generated only one applicant and that the deadline for proposals has been extended should be a warning signal. I believe the bid should be delayed until important changes are made to the law to ensure Baltimore gets the type of development it deserves.

If elected, I will work with the Governor, legislative leaders, and members of the Maryland State Lottery Agency to make three changes to state law to make the Baltimore project more attractive to developers and more beneficial to taxpayers, including: allowing current license holders to bid for Baltimore's license to increase competition; lower the tax rate to match Rocky Gap's 50 percent rate, and; auction the license to the highest and best bidder.

The Mayor's recent decision to "sweeten" the deal for developers by taking money meant for the neighborhoods and her agreement to waive the minority contracting requirements individually and together cause me great concern.

As Mayor, I will also work with members of the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission to change the state law to include six requirements any bidder should commit to, including: sign a "Community Benefits Agreement" that will help ameliorate any impact on its surrounding areas; commit to substantial local hiring during construction and operation; commit to use of minority businesses during construction and operation; remain "union neutral" during operation; contract with locally owned vendors during construction and operation, and; create a "rewards" program that can be used to support local businesses to encourage "spin-off" economic impact.

13. Recent corruption scandals in the police and fire departments and other city agencies have diminished public trust in government. What steps would you take to ensure that the public is receiving the honest services of all city employees and elected officials?

Accountability is the only cure for diminished trust. Unless the public is able to hold its leaders accountable, we can't repair the relationship between taxpayers and city government. As Mayor, I would provide residents with the tools to hold me accountable for the promises I make and the delivery of government services they deserve.

To make government more accountable, I would define specific goals and benchmarks through performance-based budgeting, a system used by the most successful businesses to maximize performances and track spending. I would also increase random audits of entities that receive government funding, making it clear that they will be held responsible for the work promised. Finally, I would create an independent Inspector General to expand auditing and internal investigations to keep everyone honest. These steps will root out waste and ensure that every agency is meeting its targets and satisfying taxpayers' demands.

As Mayor, I would also provide taxpayers with the tools to report poor service from elected officials and City employees. Even though there is a "whistleblower" hotline in the Inspector General's office, we need additional ways for the public to file complaints. If elected, I would establish a Web site that makes it possible for citizens to send anonymous messages to report violations and a special hotline for City workers to anonymously discuss ethics issues and receive advice. As Mayor, I would also institute routine "customer satisfaction" surveys and a program of secret testers. These programs will check to see whether government services are being delivered correctly and follow-up with agencies that receive multiple complaints.

By empowering taxpayers to demand quality services and report officials when they don't, we can raise the bar at City Hall.