City leaders are failing Baltimore

Baltimore’s mayor and City Council members are just about halfway through their four-year terms, and an unpleasant question looms: Are they making progress in changing the city for the better?

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t seem like it.

In December 2016, they took office, and that year ended with 318 homicides. In 2017, after their first full year, the number of homicides rose to 342, and Baltimore set a new per-capita homicide record — roughly 56 homicides per 100,000 people. The city leaders’ efforts this year to substantially reduce last year’s record have produced mediocre results. As of this writing, with a little under three months remaining in 2018, the number of homicides is 238. If 2018 ends with under 300 homicides, it will be a miracle.

The city can drastically reduce the number of homicides if it aggressively invests in troubled neighborhoods and if it comes up with bold ideas. A few months ago, news stories about city areas without grocery stores captured the media spotlight as sketchy corner stores were blamed for being magnets for crime. The mayor even took the unusual step of asking a private business to reduce its hours of operation, even though that business is a source of food, albeit limited, for that area. If the city wants more grocery stores, it could either heavily subsidize or open city-owned grocery stores. The city could offer companies tax incentives, security services or cover their rents to lure stores to certain areas. If that fails, the city could enter the private market. This wouldn’t be the first time as the city-owned Hilton in downtown is an example of the city inserting itself into the private market.

The grocery stores could provide employment opportunities, especially to teen-agers, giving them something to do and a paycheck. It’s better and safer for a 15-year-old to bag groceries on the weekend than run into rush-hour traffic to wash windows for cash.

The Maryland Legislature could also help the city by rewriting the state’s archaic liquor laws to allow large general merchandise and grocery stores to sell beer and wine and even liquor. In Florida, for example, general merchandise and grocery stores sell beer and wine, and in New Mexico they can sell liquor. This would help reduce the number of questionable liquor stores in the city because large discount stores offer better prices and selection. This would also help reduce the city’s crime. A recent Johns Hopkins study finds Baltimore liquor stores are linked to more violent crime than bars and restaurants. If the city had fewer liquor stores, crime would be reduced.

The city must expand its tourism industry to other parts of Baltimore besides the Inner Harbor. The size of the city-owned Baltimore Convention Center has become an issue as other cities offer larger and more attractive convention centers. Some groups have decided against holding their events here because of the convention center’s smaller size, costing the city millions of dollars in potential revenue. The State Center complex is a perfect location to build a new convention center because it is near both the light rail and subway, it is only two miles from the Inner Harbor, it is close to Penn Station, and it would bring new businesses and employment opportunities to the mid-town city’s west side. As questions remain about the fate of the large State Center complex, city leaders should reevaluate whether it makes sense to just demolish the Baltimore Convention Center, sell the land and build a larger and fancier convention center on the State Center complex property.

The city should provide tax credits to private property owners to help the city prevent and solve crimes. As inflation and interest rates rise on consumer financial products and wages remain stagnant, the city’s high property tax rate cuts property owners deeper. The city could provide tax credits to property owners who install front door security cameras. This would increase surveillance in neighborhoods while decreasing the cost of property ownership. This would also encourage more people to participate in city crime prevention strategies.

The city’s population continues to decline, ramping up from a drip-drip-drip of loss to a thin but steady stream of people fleeing the frightening homicide numbers. If the city does not substantially reduce its homicide rate and take concrete steps to improve citizens’ lives, what seems like a pluggable leak now will turn into a geyser.

David Placher is a writer for Baltimore Outloud. His email is david.placher@gmail.com.

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