Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah released Thursday his plan for helping Baltimore’s economy recover from the blow dealt by the coronavirus pandemic, calling for the city to dip deep into its rainy day fund and borrow against its bond rating.
In a 35-page proposal dubbed “From Recovery to Prosperity,” Vignarajah lays out steps he says the city should take in the short and longterm to transform the public health crisis into an opportunity for growth.
“The next mayor will need to fight a two-front war: one against entrenched economic inequities emboldened by a global pandemic, and another against the relentless violent crime that stunts our city’s capacity to reach its fullest potential,” Vignarajah, the former state deputy attorney general, wrote in a letter to city residents. “I am prepared for precisely that.”
As mayoral candidates stare down the June 2 Democratic primary, they are seeking to make the argument that they’re best equipped to pull Baltimore out of a crisis. City Council President Brandon Scott also released a coronavirus recovery plan calling for Baltimore to use part of its rainy day fund, while Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young makes several pandemic-related announcements a week as he runs to hold onto his seat.
Vignarajah called for the city to immediately stimulate the local economy by withdrawing $50 million from its rainy day fund and borrowing $200 million against the city’s AA bond rating.
The money, he says, should be used to bolster sick-leave payments, support small businesses and expand internet access to help children who are supposed to be learning remotely but lack adequate technology to tune into online classes.
Vignarajah proposes the city take advantage of emptier roads and school buildings to accelerate repairs and construction projects. Specifically, before kids return to schools, he called for City Hall to quickly install air-conditioning and heating systems into the dozens of buildings that still lack them.
“We need to seize the opportunity that the near-term problems present,” he said.
Economist Anirban Basu, of Sage Policy Group, said Vignarajah’s plan would move the city’s economic development forward “aggressively.”
Some may question how practical it is to add additional debt to the city’s already fragile finances, he said, but nonetheless the plan represents a strong approach to recovery.
“The economy will determine ultimately how quickly such a vision can be realized, but what Thiru Vignarajah has set forth is a great vision for Baltimore," Basu said.
Basu has not endorsed any candidate for mayor, though he hosted a meet-and-greet with Vignarajah last year. Basu donated to Vignarajah’s unsuccessful 2018 campaign for state’s attorney but has not given to any mayoral campaign this cycle.
City officials say they have to be “very judicious” in deciding to pull money from the rainy day fund, calling it a last resort. Budget director Bob Cenname said earlier this month that the city’s reserves — there’s about $145 million in the pot — help it maintain a strong credit rating.
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Vignarajah said their stance is “myopically conservative.”
The bond rating is “not some trophy to be boasted about in the abstract,” he said. “This is an asset that Baltimore City has available to it. I don’t know what we’re waiting for if we’re not deploying that asset now.”
Vignarajah’s plan lays out a multiyear approach to recovery.
If elected, he says he will begin a process to cut property taxes in half over the next decade and relaunch the “dollar homes” program.
Also running against Vignarajah are former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former police spokesman T.J. Smith and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller.
Miller said the city’s recovery is going to demand more than what Vignarajah put out in his plan.
“Digging our way out of the hole created by COVID-19 is going to take more than releasing long-winded documents with vague calls for action, bond sales and philanthropy,” she said in a statement. “Any effective plan needs to start now by tapping all the federal aid possible and creating direct programs to help Baltimoreans as quickly as possible.”