Rawlings-Blake marks 100 days as Baltimore mayor

Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake probably can't turn on the radio or TV without hearing attacks on taxes she has proposed to help close the largest budget gap in decades.

On top of that, the Baltimore mayor will somehow have to find an extra $65 million if the public safety pension plan is not changed in the next seven weeks, even as hundreds of police officers and firefighters are threatening to retire, quit or sue if it is altered.

And let's not forget the pair of historic blizzards that paralyzed the city during her first week in office, or how she was rushed to the hospital with chest pains one month later.

Rawlings-Blake had dreamed of leading the city of Baltimore since she was a young girl. But Friday, as she marked her 100th day as mayor, there's an old adage that comes to mind: Be careful what you wish for.

Although there have been triumphs — steps toward ethics reform, record Census participation, bids to bring Google Fiber and Indy racing to the city — it's hard to imagine a more stressful first hundred days for a mayor.

But Rawlings-Blake says that there's still nothing she would rather be doing. And in fact, after being appointed to fill the mayor's office after Sheila Dixon's resignation, she has her eye on the future — she plans to run for mayor next year.

"My interest in public service is not just for when times are good," Rawlings-Blake said. "Just because we're in challenging times doesn't mean I love it any less. This is what I've dreamed of doing my whole life. I feel very fortunate to be able to have an impact on the city and the communities that I love."

Budget woes loom large

While 100 days represents an arbitrary guidepost, a much more critical deadline looms for Rawlings-Blake — June 30, the end of the fiscal year. By that date, she must push a budget plan through the City Council and hammer out a pension deal with the police and fire unions or risk financial disaster. It will prove as much a test of her leadership skills as her ability to compromise.

Rawlings-Blake has accomplished many of her initial goals. She has acted on some of the recommendations put forth by her 150-member volunteer transition team, such as appointing a permanent recreation and parks director and starting a national search for a health commissioner.

Although some residents grumbled about the city's response to the back-to-back blizzards, most agree that Rawlings-Blake, confronted with the unprecedented storms immediately after taking office, headed off potential crisis with graceful and confident leadership. And she bounced back from a health scare quickly as well — going from Shock Trauma to City Hall within hours after suffering what she called gastric issues caused by too much coffee. Rawlings-Blake even used the moment as a public services announcement, reminding women not to neglect their health.

She has made strides in reforming the city's ethics laws — an issue brought to the forefront during the criminal trial that ultimately cost Dixon her job. Rawlings-Blake signed into law a pair of bills that limit the mayor's influence on the ethics board and clarify the definition of those doing business with the city.

"The new laws are certainly an improvement, never perfect, but a big step forward," said Julian L. Lapides, who sits on the state ethics commission and is a former city ethics board member.

Steady or disengaged?

Reaction to Rawlings-Blake's first three months spans a wide range. Some praise her steady, low-key manner and the decisiveness with which she has attacked the budget, while others say she seems disengaged from negotiations over the city's most contentious issues.

Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union, said he is troubled that the administration has asked the council to take the lead on the pension crisis. Rawlings-Blake's staffers are largely absent from pension negotiations, he said.

"During the mayor's state of the city [speech], it was an important enough issue that she referred to it as a 'ticking time bomb,' " he said. "But when it comes time to sit at the table and solve it, the mayor and her staff throw their hands up. They're missing in action. And you can't solve problems by ignoring them."

Rawlings-Blake said she and her staff have had "many conversations" with public safety leaders but have not yet reached a consensus.

She also has drawn mixed reactions for how she has tackled a $121 million hole in the city's $2.2 billion budget.

Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group, lauded Rawlings-Blake's approach to closing the deficit through $70 million in cuts and a $50 million array of new taxes, which include a $350 tariff on hospital and university beds and a four-cent tax on bottled beverages.

"The types of tax increases that have been proposed are not of the type that would cause taxpayers to leave Baltimore City," he said. "They might be viewed as nuisances, they might be opposed by businesses, but they're not going to have a huge impact on residents."

New taxes protested

But Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former council member, said that although he is a fan of Rawlings-Blake, he believes she should have cut spending further before trotting out new taxes.

"I understand there are some immediate shortfalls, but to fall back on a bundle of taxes, I don't think that's the best solution," said Landers, who was a member of the mayor's 150-person transition committee.

Many of the nine taxes and fees proposed by Rawlings-Blake were originally suggested by a team Landers led two years ago, charged with devising ways to lower the city's property tax rate, one of the highest in the state. The city should streamline and cut expenses to reach a sustainable solution to the budget gap, and reserve the other measures to lower property taxes, he said. Lower tax rates would attract more residents and businesses to the city and broaden Baltimore's tax base, Landers added.

He urged caution on the bottle tax, noting that when he was the lead sponsor of a similar measure in the late 1980s, it was implemented in conjunction with Baltimore County. When the county reversed its tax, Landers fought for the city's tariff to also be repealed, which it was within a couple of years.

"We need to do things in partnership with the surrounding counties," he said. If the city alone passes the tax, "it will definitely put city businesses at a competitive disadvantage."

Beverage distributors and store owners have orchestrated a robust opposition campaign to the bottle tax, which they say will drive shoppers to the surrounding counties. Attack ads, mentioning Rawlings-Blake by name, run on the air and in print, and the campaign spreads its message via Twitter and Facebook.

Rawlings-Blake, who maintained a fairly low profile during her 15 years as first a council member then as council president, said she was not troubled by the public rebukes.

"Of course nobody wants to hear something negative about them, but it's not about me. I'm looking for a solution to the city's fiscal crisis — how to keep our firehouses open, how to keep our rec centers open," she said.

Council pushback

In March, Rawlings-Blake's administration presented a dire budget that closed the budget gap by laying off 600 workers — including scores of police — closing seven fire companies and shuttering more than half the rec centers.

Many council members and union leaders saw the doomsday budget as a scare tactic to draw support for the new taxes and fees. At hearings this week, council members, who are under intense pressure from those lobbying against the new taxes, lambasted the budget process and questioned whether the spending plan could be believed.

Council members complain that the administration appears unwilling to cede on thornier issues.

"They're not advancing any middle ground," said Councilman Bill Henry, who has locked horns with the administration over the container and bed taxes. "It's their way or doomsday. I acknowledge that it's a legitimate negotiating tactic, but it's not one I'm used to."

Rawlings-Blake said she is always open to discussion with the council. "I think that the tension and pressure are high because we're not bickering over a surplus; we're making hard decisions," she said.

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said he has noted a "level of irritation" from the council that he has not seen in years. "There are signs that the council is starting to take its own initiative in a city in which the mayor has long been in control, not just of the city, but the council."

Council members appeared emboldened after they selected Bernard C. "Jack" Young to replace Rawlings-Blake as council president despite the new mayor's support of his opponent, Councilman William H. Cole IV, Crenson said.

Rawlings-Blake should fold the council members into more key discussions of the budget, he said.

"Essentially, she needs to acknowledge the power of the council, and later she can smack them down," he said.

Henry said tensions usually run high between the council and the mayor during budget season, although this year is particularly heated.

Between the short transition period and the massive financial problems, Rawlings-Blake is coping with "a perfect storm of bad circumstances," he said.

"Her first hundred days are not a hundred days I'd wish on anyone," Henry said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/juliemore

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