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City's pain, everyone's gain

Our view: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposals for a stronger, more stable Baltimore merit statewide attention and support

8:00 AM EST, February 24, 2013

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There were two odd things about Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's presentation Wednesday at the Walters Art Museum to introduce "Change to Grow," her ambitious plan to put Baltimore's budget on a sustainable path, cut taxes and increase investments in infrastructure.

First: the trivial. As her PowerPoint ended, music swelled in the background, specifically the opening guitar riffs to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," which includes the lines, "City's aflood/And our love turns to rust/We're beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust." Not exactly an auspicious message for a controversial effort to reverse Baltimore's decades of decline. (Perhaps the later U2 effort, "City of Blinding Lights," would have worked better: "A city lit by fireflies/They're advertising in the skies/For people like us.")

The second, and more substantial, curiosity is that the mayor was introduced by University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, who neither lives nor works in Baltimore City. The reason for his interest, he explained, is that the region cannot be strong if the city is not. "When we are attracting people to this region from all over the world, whether to start companies or to go to school, it is because of Baltimore City," he said.

He is certainly right about that. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake's proposals take as a central assumption that when it comes to addressing its problems, Baltimore is on its own.

The 23-page booklet the mayor released, and the 100-page background report by the consultants who helped her develop her ideas, contain scores of proposals large and small for improving Baltimore's lot and laying the groundwork to achieve Ms. Rawlings-Blake's goal of bringing new families to the city. It includes cuts in some taxes and increases in others, more spending on roads and bridges and less on employee salaries and benefits. All together, it would eliminate $750 million in budget deficits over the next decade, cut property taxes by 22 percent and reduce Baltimore's long-term liabilities.

Making the math work requires some assumptions — for example, that Baltimore could realize substantial revenue from selling the naming rights to buildings or that firefighters would agree in collective bargaining to a new work schedule. But it does not assume any additional financial support from the state, nor does it propose any change to the way government services are provided (and financed) throughout the Baltimore region.

That's probably a realistic approach. The mayor surely knows from the experience of her father, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings (if not from her own), that getting the General Assembly to agree to provide more aid to Baltimore is a tough sell in good economic times, much less the difficult ones we now find ourselves in.

But Mr. Hrabowski should not be the only non-city resident to take note of what Ms. Rawlings-Blake is doing. She is proposing a host of difficult decisions and trade-offs that would fall chiefly on city residents and workers, but the benefits would be felt much more widely.

That doesn't mean that the state or surrounding counties should, for example, directly subsidize Baltimore City property tax reductions. But it should encourage regional and state leaders to back initiatives that would complement Ms. Rawlings-Blake's efforts — more transportation funding to help support the Red Line light rail, a commitment to the city schools reconstruction plan, and support for a convention center expansion proposal that includes private financing for a new arena and hotel, to name a few.

Mr. Hrabowski can look from his hilltop campus and see Baltimore's skyline, a reminder, he says, that Baltimore is the heart of the region, culturally and economically. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has set out to strengthen that heart and make it more vital, and she is prepared to invest the time and energy to rally city leaders, activists and ordinary residents to the cause. She deserves to know she's not in this alone.

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