January 8, 2010
In Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, Baltimoreans get a young, bright and serious new mayor who could bring some urgently needed stability to city government even as she faces one of the toughest fiscal challenges in municipal history. She's the No-Drama Queen, and that should suit everyone around here just fine. Faced with a projected budget shortfall of $127 million or more in the coming fiscal year, the last thing Baltimoreans need from City Hall is more drama.
I interviewed Rawlings-Blake, along with City Councilman William Cole, on Tuesday for my "Midday" radio show on WYPR. I found the City Council president conversant in the nuances of the city budget and drawn to the challenge to fix it. She reminded me of her father.
Until his death in 2003, Howard "Pete" Rawlings was one of the most influential and principled legislators in Annapolis, a delegate from Baltimore who served many years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He was a master of things fiscal. A math professor, Pete Rawlings probably understood the state's operating budget better than anyone, and the more vexing the challenges, the more he seemed to thrive. Rawlings loved to work the numbers, and he liked to remind his colleagues that keeping Maryland's fiscal house in order was their most important duty.
Pete Rawlings would have been proud to hear his daughter talk budget on the radio the other day.
On the $127 million shortfall in fiscal 2011, Rawlings-Blake said: "It's a very serious prediction. I don't see a lot changing, but we have to stay focused on having diverse revenue streams for the city. We can't just depend on property taxes. We certainly can't depend on income tax when people are losing jobs, when people's salaries are being decreased. We have to look at diversifying our revenue and being smarter about our spending. We have to focus on our priorities, get rid of any frivolous spending and do what families are doing all over this city - do more with less.
"You know," she said, "we're going to weather this storm, and when we get on the other side of it, we need to know that we're not losing ground in public safety and public education."
I asked about the city's current policy of rotating firehouse closures as a way to save money.
"I have a lot of respect for Chief [Jim] Clack because he was one of the only administration leaders who came into the budget hearing and was brutally honest about the impact the reduced budget would have on his department," she said. "A lot of people want to paint a rosy picture and say, 'OK, cut my budget and it won't affect anything.' He was very clear - you cut my budget and this is what will happen. And the rotating closures, he made it clear, was making the best out of a bad situation."
Callers to the radio show offered ideas to fix Baltimore's money problems.
Have an amnesty period for people who owe parking fines, said a man from Ellicott City.
"A few years ago I had the same idea and was given a very interesting lesson by the Finance Department," Rawlings-Blake said. "When we took a look at the money that comes in for an amnesty and the revenues lost, it's really not a great thing for the city. If people think every three years there's going to be amnesty, that affects behavior - people don't pay, they wait for the amnesty."
Another "Midday" listener suggested that the city increase home ownership by renovating some of the thousands of vacant rowhouses here. Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that as a good idea but then added her own take, pushing for slot machine revenue - Pete Rawlings was a longtime advocate of legalizing slots - and finishing with the kind of upbeat, cheerleader-like flourish Baltimoreans like in their mayors:
"There are other ways to increase home ownership. One of the things we're all hoping for is moving forward with slots, to get the revenue and start to bring down the property tax rate. If we can make our property tax more competitive, people will realize the possibilities for Baltimore. ... We're starting to see people from the surrounding jurisdictions come for our charter schools, come for our transformation schools, come for our top high schools. People want to be here, but they're facing these impediments, and if we can start to bring that property tax down, we'd turn it around and fill some of these vacant homes and build our tax base as well."
For a lot of Baltimoreans, the first and lasting impression of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was that of Pete's daughter, the 24-year-old political novice and the youngest person ever elected to the City Council.
But that was nearly 15 years ago. Baltimore's mayor-in-waiting obviously has grown up on the job.
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