Mega Millions is up to $900 million (and counting). What could Baltimore do with that money?

If Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is out and about this week on a tour of one of the city’s neighborhoods, we’d like to humbly suggest that she stop into a corner store, not to harangue the owner about the quality of the carpet or the hours of operation, but to plunk down two bucks for a Mega Millions ticket. The jackpot, as you may have heard, is up to $900 million — more than any individual could in good conscience spend on himself or herself. You couldn’t even come up with a list of “here’s what you could buy with $900 million” because the answer would be ... anything. But for a whole city, say a struggling one like Baltimore, that kind of money could actually move the needle on some real problems. Without getting all pedantic about taxes and lump sum payout vs. getting the money over time, here are a few idea for what Baltimore could do with that kind of cash.

Fix the schools.

Literally fix them, we mean. There are a bunch of options here. Baltimore is in the midst of a historic construction and renovation campaign that will allow it to open as many as 28 new schools in the coming years, thanks to a $1.1 billion plan jointly funded by the school system, the city and the state. But that only covered about half of the need identified by a group of advocates several years ago. A lucky Mega Millions ticket and we’re pretty close to solving the whole problem. Roughly speaking, $900 million could pay for another 22 or 23 new schools.

Remember all those images of kids wearing parkas in class and still huddling together for warmth last winter when the heating systems failed in dozens of schools at once? The problem stemmed from decades of deferred maintenance, under-investment and state school construction funding rules that punished jurisdictions like Baltimore that couldn’t forward-fund their own projects. But with $900 million? Problem solved. A complete replacement of the 1964 heating and cooling system at Curtis Bay Elementary/Middle School was estimated to cost $6.9 million — an expensive projects as these things go. But win the Mega Millions, and you can completely replace the HVAC in 130 schools, even at that price.

But what about investing in the classroom? Students too often contend with large class sizes, and the system’s best teachers are too often recruited away by suburban systems that can pay more for easier work. Well, $900 million would be enough to hire 730 master teachers at the top of the system’s scale and keep them on the job for the next 12 years.

Solve the crime problem.

As Baltimore grapples with another spike in violence, Mayor Pugh has noted that the Police Department is 500 sworn officers short of its level of staffing during former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s administration. That $900 million would be enough to pay for those 500 officers at the top of the current salary scale for the next 20 years.

But solving Baltimore’s generations-long struggle with crime is about a lot more than putting police officers on the streets. A big part is rebuilding the trust between the police and the community, and that starts with addressing the unconstitutional practices the Department of Justice reported were pervasive in the department. Baltimore is in the midst of implementing a consent decree, and that’s expected to be expensive — but we’re talking tens of millions of dollars here, nowhere close to that $900 million jackpot. But if we want to make sure the cops all follow the law, how about sending each and every Baltimore police officer to law school? It would only cost about $125 million to put 2,500 cops through the University of Maryland School of Law for three years, even accounting for the 10 percent or so who would have to pay out-of-state tuition.

Or we could start tackling some of the root causes of crime. About 10,000 people return from prison to Baltimore each year, and many struggle to find employment that can support them, much less their families. We could give them each a job for a year — at a salary of $90,000.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young successfully fought to create a youth fund for Baltimore, which gets a dedicated slice of the city’s property tax revenue each year to fund programs that benefit the city’s young people. It had $12 million in funding for its first year — but $75 million in requests. Mega MIllions? Problem solved.

Lack of economic opportunity in many inner city neighborhoods is a huge contributor to crime, and Baltimore’s disjointed public transportation system makes matters much worse. A regional coalition worked for years to do something about that — the Red Line, a new light rail route that would have connected neighborhoods like Freddie Gray’s Sandtown with major employment centers like the Social Security complex in the west and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in the east. Gov. Larry Hogan halted the project, and even if a new governor revives it (or Mr. Hogan has a change of heart), Baltimore would be at the back of the line for federal funding. Previously, we had been in line for (you guessed it) $900 million.

Improve the quality of life.

There are plenty of options here. Last year, Mayor Pugh estimated that eliminating homelessness in Baltimore would cost $350 million. At last count, Baltimore had about 16,800 vacant houses. We could spend the $150 million the federal government estimated a few years ago it would take to demolish them all — or spend $53,000 apiece to rehab them. We could line the harbor with 1,636 Mr. Trash Wheels. Vexed about how to deal with the squeegee kids who approach motorists on busy thoroughfares? If the $200 in a good day estimate one of them gave The Sun’s Yvonne Wenger is accurate, a Mega Millions jackpot could pay the 100 or so kids to put their squeegees down for the next 123 years.

Baltimore’s unmet needs — where to begin?

It is, of course, absurd to suggest that Baltimore’s best strategy for solving its problems is to buy a lottery ticket — but that’s just the point. The city shouldn’t be in a position of waiting for some miracle to address the needs of its residents. It should be able to expect that the rest of the state (and, for that matter, the federal government) would recognize that we bear a collective responsibility to invest in workable strategies to improve the lives of those in the most need. What are the odds of that? Better, we hope, than 1 in 302,575,350. But Mayor Pugh, maybe you should buy that ticket, just in case.


Readers' suggestions

We asked Sun readers on social media how they would use $900 million to help the city. Here's what they said.

@jmgpix Buy Baltimore County

@SaintCharlie AC in the schools?

@Seanerb More scooters.

@Vonnie932 I have my own way to improve the City, community centers with STEM, arts, music, cooking classes, tutorials, trade training, homework assistance, mental health services.

@saby195 God, so many ways! Bridges, roadways, improving schools come immediately to my mind.

@elliottditman Turn Charles St into a gated pedestrian street

@jlan23 Democrats would steal it

@jourdantarron Spend it on creating jobs and giving homeless people a place to live

@tony57406981 BULLDOZE THE ENTIRE CITY.

@PresidentPratt Revamping the schools and overhauling the city’s education system. All areas with greater equality of education and income show drastically reduced gun violence and improved citizen happiness.


Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°