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Complaints -- and solutions

The Baltimore Sun

More than 100 West Baltimore community members packed into Gwynn Falls Elementary School yesterday to air their wide-ranging concerns before a panel of city officials, a number of whom are candidates in this year's elections.

Sponsored by the Panway Neighborhood Improvement Association and more than 20 surrounding community groups, the sometimes heated discussion focused on five problems: rats, trash, drugs, crime and vacant houses.

Rather than simply identifying the problems, group leaders floated solutions based on suggestions from Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, and Marsha R.B. Schachtel, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies.

"Elected representatives come and go," said Reginald C. Thomas, president of the Panway Neighborhood Improvement Association. "But these five basic problems stay with us."

Winbush and Schachtel helped the group review the city's $2.65 billion budget for fiscal year 2008, which the City Council approved last week.

Attending yesterday's event were City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running in this year's mayoral race; City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, a veteran council member who is running for a full term in the position she was appointed to in January; and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is challenging Rawlings-Blake for the council presidency. City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway also attended.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was expected to attend, canceled yesterday morning, saying she had a scheduling conflict.

Tony Bridges, executive director of the Office of Neighborhoods and Constituent Services, attended, as did representatives from the public works and parks departments.

Residents complained that despite all the election-year campaign promises to help city neighborhoods, they rarely get anywhere when they call their elected officials or the established city help lines, such as 311.

"We hear this maybe every election year," said Mary M. Hughes, who moderated the discussion and is married to retired state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes. "We hear it. We hear it. We hear it. We want to see activity."

Hughes said residents want to see the nine employees of the Rat Rub Out Program increased to 100 to help combat the estimated 3 million rats in the city.

"We have not had the service and response that we want to have," Hughes told the officials.

Based on the two experts' suggestions, Panway leaders came up with recommendations to free up money in the budget for their priorities.

They suggested eliminating the proposed Women's Commission because its function is similar to the existing Community Relations Commission, for a savings of $125,000, and eliminating the proposed Veterans Commission, which would save $300,000.

Other suggestions included reducing the city's "civic promotion" campaigns by $125,000 and cutting $1 million from the Fire Department budget, in light of questionable spending practices exposed in a recent Sun article.

The group also called for examining salary increases among the mayor's staff.

Though officials agreed with some of the residents' concerns and proposals, they defended other decisions.

Mitchell said he was the sponsor of a bill to form a Veterans Commission and believes that though similar groups may exist on the state and federal level, the commission is important for the city.

"We have not had the service and response that we want to have," Hughes told the officials.

To combat crime, the group called for a return to foot patrols, a solution that Mitchell said was impossible with the current shortage of officers in the Police Department. Stepping up recruitment and retention of officers, part of the crime-fighting strategy in his campaign platform, is essential, he said.

Harris reiterated his refrain for taking a third of the officers in specialized units and putting them in the districts.

Bridges, of the neighborhoods office, said the administration is conducting a pilot program with increased foot patrols in part of the Southwest District, which could be expanded depending on the results.

Rawlings-Blake pointed to her resolution to use $2 million from the city's rainy-day fund to step up police recruitment. She said she is also working with schools on developing a training course for people who take the civil service exam, which is required for the police and fire departments.

Still, residents pointed to the exasperation that many in the community have concerning the city's homicide numbers and continued problems with violence and drugs.

"The kids that are being killed in this city, it's mind-boggling," said Ralph Hughes, who represented District 40 first as a state delegate and then as a state senator for a combined 23 years.

If "white kids in Montgomery County" were being killed, the problem would already be resolved, said Hughes.

"We put a lower value on black life," he said. "If you ever look at the statistics, you would think Baltimore is some foreign country."

Officials agreed with suggestions for promoting the sale and renovation of abandoned homes.

"This city aggressively sought developers and investors to build two stadiums," said Wayne Yarborough, 42. "This city aggressively sought developers and investors to build" up the harbor. "Why doesn't this city aggressively seek developers and investors to buy up our vacant properties?" he said to the applause of the audience.

Harris pointed to revitalization in his district, such as Belvedere Square, saying such redevelopment is "something I'm looking to bring to the rest of the city."

Rawlings-Blake agreed that the city needs to be aggressive, but she stressed the importance of being "strategic," pointing to the Park Heights Master Plan as a model. "We have to have a bigger plan," she said.

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