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Goals at center stage

The Baltimore Sun

Appearing together for the first time since declaring their intention to run, four Baltimore mayoral candidates and three people running for City Council president vowed yesterday to expand or rebuild 30 recreation centers and to spend at least $100 million on affordable housing, if elected.

Speaking at a candidates forum organized by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a faith-based civic group, all seven agreed with the organization's broad goals, which also include increasing the availability of after-school programs and demanding that large businesses provide more summer jobs for city youth.

Far from a debate, the tightly controlled discussion left little room for candidates to distinguish themselves, but the event was the first in which the seven - all Democrats - have faced off on several key issues. Most made commitments that were not only new, but that could become defining themes of the race.

"It's an agenda of hope and it recognizes that our future lies in our children and our communities," Michael Sarbanes, a neighborhood advocate and council president candidate, said of the BUILD platform.

Baltimore has 46 recreation centers, about a dozen of which are open on weekends. BUILD members say that modernizing 30 of them and expanding their staffing would give more teenagers a place to go during the summer and after school. Baltimore will spend $11 million this year on the centers and similar initiatives.

Mayor Sheila Dixon - who has been in office since her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, was sworn in as governor in January - committed earlier this year to add $1 million to the city's budget to expand the hours at some centers. The city's $2.65 billion budget is expected to be approved by the City Council today.

"We're working vigorously to make sure that our recreation centers [are] expanding their time and their hours over the summer months," Dixon told the hundreds who attended the event at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore. "I'm not just talking the talk, I'm walking the walk."

Though all agreed to expand the centers, none of the mayoral candidates said they would halt reductions in the city's property tax rate to pay for that expansion. BUILD had asked the city to discontinue its annual 2-cent reduction of the property tax rate until a specific source of money could be identified to pay for the centers.

"Baltimore City is probably the highest, most-overtaxed jurisdiction in the state of Maryland, from our property tax to our cell phone tax to our fees," said city councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who received applause for his statement.

Schools administrator Andrey Bundley said he believes the recreation centers will only benefit the community if their focus is changed so that they help students with their studies, not just their jump shot.

"Those centers must be educationally focused," said Bundley, the only mayoral candidate on stage yesterday who had run for the office before - losing to O'Malley in 2003. "No basketball before study hall. If it's a boxing center ... no right hooks or left hooks before you hit your books. That has to happen for our children."

Mayoral hopefuls received five minutes each to explain their position on BUILD's priorities. Those running for council president had four minutes. The organization previously interviewed the candidates, and responses from the interviews were projected on a screen behind them as they spoke. There was no interaction between the candidates.

The mayor's race started weeks after last year's bitter gubernatorial election ended and has been slow to ramp up. Dixon, who will formally announce her candidacy later this week, has avoided any major missteps since taking office and is expected to raise considerably more money than her challengers.

In past weeks, however, the race has started to show some signs of life. Mitchell has been releasing policy proposals - his most recent focused on crime. Del. Jill P. Carter, meanwhile, has been calling attention to a 50 percent increase in the electricity rate for BGE customers. The Democratic primary is Sept. 11.

Yesterday, Carter - an outspoken critic of the O'Malley administration's zero-tolerance policing - was the only candidate to directly raise the city's homicide count, which has exceeded last year's. And though the candidates agreed to find more money for after-school programs, there was little discussion about traditional education issues, such as improving the city's graduation rate or test scores. "If we are going to tell the truth, I suggest we tell the whole truth," Carter said. "And the whole truth is that we are here tonight gathering at a time in our city where we have upward of 130 homicides."

At least two mayoral candidates - Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. and socialist A. Robert Kaufman - were not invited to the forum.

BUILD was instrumental in getting the city to earmark $59 million over five years for affordable housing as part the 2005 debate over a new, city-funded convention hotel downtown. As part of its more recent agenda, the group is asking the city to set aside $100 million for affordable housing.

Though BUILD, a nonprofit, cannot endorse candidates, the organization has historically played a significant role in registering voters, getting them to the polls on Election Day and organizing door-to-door campaigns in which they outline their agenda and show which candidates are most in line with their views.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is running for council president, was the only candidate for president who said he would use a portion of the city's recordation fee to pay for affordable housing. Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, the current council president, said she has recently spoken with banking leaders to identify more private funds that could be used to boost the availability of affordable housing.

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