Although the Baltimore mayoral election is almost a year away, a number of potential candidates are already gearing up for the race. As a former Republican mayoral candidate, a 40-year resident of Baltimore and a businessman in the city, I am proposing an agenda for our next mayor that all law-abiding, taxpaying residents of Baltimore can embrace.
We need to stop kidding ourselves. Insidious crime, poor public schools, uncompetitive taxes and a high poverty rate are not the marks of a city that attracts people to live, work or visit here. So what is the next mayor going to do about this reality? What should his or her agenda be?
•Do not allow the city government to do anything or sanction any action that unnecessarily irritates its citizens. Recognizing its weaknesses, Baltimore, led by the mayor, needs to be consistently marketed and operated in every way that communicates it wants people and businesses to live, work in and visit our city.
This means: no more surly city office clerks, no more $50 tickets for parking six inches over the line or five minutes past expiration, no more heavy-handed gotchas from building inspectors or police officers and no more living-wage laws. Do not make people say to themselves: "I am law-abiding, pay exorbitant taxes, am surrounded by crime, and the city just gave me a $250 ticket for double parking to unload my groceries. I'm outta here." The only person with the actual and moral authority to change the city government's attitude is the mayor.
•Make real education reform the city's highest priority. The ticket to opportunity for the poor, struggling children of our city lies is receiving a quality public education. It is a tragedy that our city does not offer such a ticket. We need a mayor — which we have not had for the past 40 years — who will stick out his neck, like Mayor Adrian Fenty did in Washington, D.C., in support of radical education reform.
While Baltimore's mayor does not directly control the schools, she, with the governor, jointly appoints the school board members and has a major role in the city school budget. The next mayor needs to publicly support the reform efforts of schools CEO Andrés Alonso, insist on financial accountability from the school system, actively and vocally support charter schools and other school improvements, and take on a teacher union leadership that has been the greatest obstacle to fundamental reform in public education. While hailed by some as a monumental achievement, the fact is the new teacher union contract does not come close to removing the obstacles that exist to allow principals, teachers and parents to make students — rather than teachers — the focus of the schools. Incremental reform is unacceptable. A second grader can't wait until she is a seventh-grader for improvement to arrive.
•Sharply reduce real estate tax rates. The city tax rate is more then double that of its surrounding jurisdictions. The annual tax bill for a person buying a $300,000 home in the city is $6,800, versus $3,300 in Baltimore County. Are the schools in the city twice as good, streets twice as clean, crime half as bad, to warrant charging an additional $300 per month? Why should any home buyer choose to locate here?
The city fully recognizes that our taxes are exorbitant when it offers a $155 million tax break for the redevelopment of the former Allied Chemical site on the Inner Harbor. At the same time, the city administration ignores the small businesses and residents of the city, forcing them to pick up the difference. No mayor has wanted to take on this issue. A credible mayoral candidate needs to advocate for an across-the-board tax rate reduction of one-third to one-half, phased in over five to seven years.
•Support the neighborhoods. The mayor needs to be the leading voice in defense of our residential communities. Too often, neighborhoods are forced to fight the city to prevent intrusive or destabilizing influences from being imposed on them, including institutional expansion, incompatible uses such as bars and late-night entertainment venues, and group homes. Our strong neighborhoods, bulwarks of the city's tax base, should not be undermined, and our fragile neighborhoods cannot afford to be further destabilized by inappropriate actions by the city. And our neighborhoods should not have to fight for their existing rights. The mayoral candidates need to insert themselves into the citywide rezoning process and take a stand for those things that are supportive of our neighborhoods — and fight provisions that are not.
•Commit to vigorous efforts to reduce crime. The mayor needs to energetically support the efforts of the police, prosecutors and courts to severely punish violent offenders and criminals who possess and use guns in the commission of crimes. At the same time, lesser crimes that affect the quality of life in our city cannot be ignored. A high level of crime can never be accepted as the status quo.
•Reduce spending. Spending needs to be contained to the vital functions of government, and unfunded liabilities need to be eliminated. We have to maintain the essential functions of police and fire protection, public schools, trash collection, maintenance of the public infrastructure, parks and recreation. The city needs to better utilize its limited resources and leverage these resources to enable citizens and neighborhoods to perform certain functions. Generous union benefit and pension packages that current and future taxpayers cannot afford must not be allowed to continue. The guiding principle is that the mayor's salary is paid by the taxpayers, not the unions.
•Support prudent economic development. The city needs to promote economic development activities that provide a sustained and positive return for Baltimore's taxpayers and oppose those that do not. It needs to focus on creating a permanent environment where businesses want to invest, rather than provide selective subsidies to companies such as USF&G, Zurich or Legg Mason. Not only is it not equitable; it does not work. Despite the city's largesse, USF&G and Zurich subsequently abandoned the city, while Legg Mason has been downsized and could be bought out. The city-owned convention center hotel was a mistake, and a new arena should not be considered if it is not self-supporting or increases the burden on the taxpayers.
• Support transparency in government. The mayoral candidates should fully endorse principles of transparency involving all government activities: government salaries, benefits and pensions, economic development activities. It needs to be done in a way that allows the citizens the opportunity to see what is happening as it is happening, not after the fact.
It will be up to the citizens and the media to hold the candidates for mayor accountable in addressing these priority issues. We don't care about personalities and campaign war chests. We only care what the candidates' positions are for dealing with the city's multiple challenges. How will they match up to the agenda outlined here?
David F. Tufaro is a real estate developer, a former member of the Maryland State Board of Education and was the Republican candidate for mayor of Baltimore in 1999. His e-mail is email@example.com.