Anger at actions by Baltimore's mayors has taken various forms over the years, but rarely has it manifested itself in a music video. But on Feb. 11, the day Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was to give her State of the City address and outline some of her ideas for coping with the dire fiscal forecast consultants predicted for the city over the next decade, the Baltimore City Paper posted on its website a full-length parody of the Police classic "Roxanne," entitled "Stephanie (you don't have to put on the red ink)".
The effort is clever and impressively carried out, and it reflects an undercurrent of suspicion among city activists. Some doubt the reality of the 10-year fiscal forecast and question the mayor's motives in following it up with ideas like changes to municipal pensions and a trash collection fee. The song asks how the consultants could have come up with such gloomy predictions for a city that has not regularly audited its own departments and reiterates common complaints that Baltimore gives away too much in tax breaks for well-heeled developers. Others have asked why the city would spend more than half a million dollars on consultants in an effort to figure out how to save money, particularly given that Baltimore already employs an entire department of finance.
In general, the sense seems to be that Ms. Rawlings-Blake dropped this report out of nowhere, and she must be up to something.
But what, exactly? What does a Democratic mayor in a Democratic city and state have to gain by highlighting the need to reduce spending — particularly the cost of benefits for unionized employees? What does any politician have to gain by highlighting the fiscal problems of the government she leads and then proposing a variety of unpopular ways to address them? And just what did people think was going to happen when, 18 months ago, Ms. Rawlings-Blake announced that she intended to develop a 10-year plan to deal with the city's chronic budget shortfalls?
The mayor could have continued patching the budget together every year with chewing gum and baling wire, but she has chosen to seek a more sustainable path — and one that could allow the city to invest in the kinds of things that will help it grow. In that context, the cost of bringing in outside experts from Public Financial Management Inc. is insignificant (though, for the record, already-implemented PFM recommendations for changes to city health benefits are saving Baltimore $20 million a year).
The way Ms. Rawlings-Blake has rolled out the consultants' report and her recommendations may be responsible for some of the unease. First she released a report detailing the scope of the problem, then she provided a few details of her plans to address it in her State of the City address, and tomorrow she intends to release the consultants' full report, plus her own action plan. To some, that feels like we're getting set up.
In truth, though, the release of the report is and should be just the beginning of a conversation with city residents and other stakeholders about how best to proceed. The consultants came up with more than 100 recommendations for ways to improve the city's finances and its competitiveness, and the mayor intends to pursue them over the course of the next two years or more. This is a long-term effort that should be judged not by how it is being introduced but by how well the administration listens to the ideas and concerns of the community and other elected officials as it translates Ms. Rawlings-Blake's ideas into legislation in the months and years ahead.
But the mayor should certainly not be blamed for wanting to do something more than manage the slow decline of a great American city. We could go on hoping that gradual improvements to the crime rate or schools, or knocking an occasional penny from the property tax rate, will spark a sudden turnaround in Baltimore's fortunes — or we could embrace the reality that the time has come to try a new strategy. The city schools have taken the latter course with their ambitious reconstruction plan, and now the mayor is following suit. Some of the ideas she will present tomorrow will probably be good, some may turn out to be bad, and others will likely emerge from the conversation that will follow. But if we want Baltimore to thrive, it is an effort worth making.