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Though challenges remain, there is much to celebrate in Baltimore [Commentary]

Baltimore still has a lot of work to do, but our city has much more for which to be grateful. The State of the City address is an opportunity to update citizens on what government is doing to confront our most immediate challenges, but also to take stock of our progress in tackling systemic problems that have been around for decades.

There is no more immediate challenge in Baltimore than our fight against violent crime. While progress has been made in reducing assaults, robberies, rapes and overall violent crime, our homicide rate remains far too high. Too much blood is being shed on our streets. It is unacceptable, but we will do better.

Two years ago, we were able to get our homicide rate down to its lowest level in a generation. This was a critical benchmark, but I always believed we could do better — 197 murders was still 197 too many.

Each life that is lost represents a future tragically cut short, a community that is shaken and a family that is shattered by its loss.

There is no uncaring here, no complacency, no lack of urgency.

We are doubling down on our strategy of focusing on the most violent repeat offenders through strategic partnerships with our local, state and federal agencies.

During the months of September and October, we targeted, investigated and arrested more than 100 violent repeat offenders and others tied to criminal activity.

We will also launch "Operation Ceasefire" this year, which has shown very promising results in reducing violence in several other big cities.

Operation Ceasefire enhances intelligence and requires officers to work with other agencies at restricting a criminal's freedom of movement and his or her ability to evade capture.

We have more than quadrupled enforcement zones where police and resources are aggressively deployed in communities experiencing increased violence. Data tell us the locations of these criminals and we are conducting search warrants, drug buys and undercover stings to apprehend these individuals before they commit violent crimes.

Our City Watch Center was previously only used for large events. Now, the center is staffed 24 hours a day with a police commander and a team of analysts who assess crime intelligence and help make better decisions on when and how to deploy officers.

We will continue to adapt and adjust our strategies as necessary until communities feel safer and violence is reduced.

While public safety remains our biggest current challenge, Baltimore has made significant strides in building up our neighborhoods and tackling systemic problems that have existed for far too long.

We are bringing jobs to the city and continue to be aggressive in our effort to connect local residents to those opportunities. More than 20,000 job opportunities are expected from the opening of a new Amazon distribution center, a new casino, the Red Line project and the Harbor Point Development.

Our Vacants to Value initiative has spurred more than $85 million in private investment in struggling communities while taking absentee landlords to task and tearing down dilapidated buildings across the city.

To date, we have demolished 800 vacant properties and issued more than 1,500 fines to vacant building owners who simply aren't doing enough to fix or sell their boarded properties.

We've confronted systemic problems, such as correcting tax errors through our Billing Integrity Unit and continuing to automate the system to provide more accurate bills. We are moving forward with updating our water meters so that citizens receive more reliable water bills.

Through our 10–year Financial Plan, we have eliminated $400 million of our $750 million structural deficit and continue to keep our pledge to cut property taxes. To date, we have reduced the effective property tax rate for all owner occupied homes, which means the average homeowner saw $220 in savings on his or her property tax bill.

We also continue to monitor progress on the $1.1 billion investment in new school construction funds, which will provide critical renovations to many of our school buildings — some of the oldest in the state.

Our city does not grow if we turn a blind eye to fixing problems.

Baltimore has its challenges, but we have so much more to celebrate. We will remain focused on reducing violent crime, building up our communities and addressing systemic problems that went for far too long without solutions.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, is the mayor of Baltimore. Her email is mayor@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: @MayorSRB.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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