Along with decisions about who will run Baltimore's government, voters on Nov. 2 will have a dozen ballot questions that include $41 million in loans for the city and a charter amendment that would give the next mayor a one-time five-year term.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is pushing the $41 million in loans with a pamphlet detailing the projects the money will fund. They include $13 million for neighborhood redevelopment and financing, $12 million for school improvements, $8 million for commercial development and several smaller loans.
Although the city is facing a $153 million deficit over the next four years, Schmoke said the bonds should not jeopardize Baltimore's credit rating, which remains strong. He said he was asked to seek more loans for additional projects, but he did not want the city to become overburdened with debt.
"I'm real conservative on that matter," Schmoke said.
The city will hold a hearing on all 12 ballot questions at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council chambers.
Schmoke's $41 million bond package is $9 million more than his last proposal during the 1995 election. City and state officials said the 11 bond questions do not appear to be unusual for the kinds of requests the city makes.
And there has been no vocal opposition to the bond questions, primarily because Schmoke has consistently maintained the city's "A" bond rating during his 12-year tenure. The ratings -- which are given by Moody's Investors Service, Fitch IBCA and Standard and Poor's Rating Group, all based in New York -- are important, because low ratings can add millions of dollars in interest costs to a city's bonds.
No 'squeaky wheels'
"The city has been very good with its debt affordability and its fiscal management," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "With bond questions, you always look for the squeaky wheel, and I don't hear any squeaky wheels" opposing any of the bonds.
The last ballot question asks voters for a charter change that would move the city elections to coincide with the presidential election. The presidential election is held the year after Baltimore's municipal elections.
If approved, the proposed charter amendment would change the next city election from 2003 to 2004, giving the mayor and other city elected officials an extra year in office.
City Councilman Robert Curran proposed the change to save the city as much as $4 million in election costs. Baltimore has three separate elections -- the state election in even-numbered years between presidential elections, such as 1998, followed by the city elections in the odd year after the state contest and the presidential election in the even year after the municipal race.
The charter change would reduce the number of elections from three to two, saving expenses on closing schools so they can become polling locations, hiring poll workers and giving overtime to police officers, who perform several duties, including bringing election ballot results to the Board of Elections Supervisors. It also could increase voter turnout because presidential elections draw as many as three times the number of voters as odd-year municipal elections.
"It's a painless cut," Curran said. "Nobody loses jobs. It just streamlines government."
Curran introduced the amendment in May 1997 at a City Council meeting, but the bill was defeated in December in an 8-6 council vote. Curran introduced the bill again in the spring after Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed state legislation during the last General Assembly session to hold city elections at the same time as state elections.
Some city lawmakers oppose having the city and state elections in the same year because it forces them to choose between running for a city or state office. Separate elections allow an elected city official to run in state elections without surrendering a city office. State officials also enjoy that advantage.
The legislation died, in part, because city officials viewed the proposal by Miller -- a Prince George's County senator -- as imposing on Baltimore's home rule.
Assembly action required
The only glitch in the charter change is that changing the election year would also require action by the General Assembly. Voters can change the general election, which is held in November of the election year, but only the General Assembly can change the primary election, which usually is held the September before the general election.
Schmoke said he believes the city does not need a separate election and supports the change.
"I would like to see the election coincide with the state, but I support the change proposed in this charter amendment," Schmoke said.
State lawmakers representing the city said that if voters approve the charter amendment, they would work to make the necessary changes to bring the primary election in line with the general election.
"I would, as I am sure my colleagues would, strongly fight for the passage of such legislation in Annapolis," Rawlings said.
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation, agrees. "I think we would be inclined to do so. I think it's a good idea."
Here are the questions as they will appear on the ballot:
Question A: $13 million loan to help plan, develop and execute community develop programs.
Question B: $1 million loan for renovation of the city's Police Athletic League centers.
Question C: $8 million loan for economic development projects that will create job opportunities and increase tax revenues.
Question D: $2 million loan to renovate city play lots, redevelop the Druid Hill Park Conservatory and gardens and recreation and refurbish the Patterson Park historic boat lake.
Question E: $1 million loan for third installment of funds for the construction of the Southeastern regional library.
Question F: $1 million loan for redevelopment of a multiuse facility for educational programs, job training, and tourism at the Living Classrooms Foundation.
Question G: $1 million loan for renovations at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Question H: $1 million loan for renovations of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Question I: $500,000 loan for renovations of the Maryland Historical Society's Mount Vernon campus.
Question J: $500,000 loan for renovations of Center Stage.
Question K: $12 million loan to renovate and purchase equipment for city schools.
Question L: Charter amendment to change the city elections to presidential years.