City ballot questions

Baltimore City voters will decide on several bond issues and charter amendments on November's ballot. The Sun makes the following recommendations.

Against Question E

We wholeheartedly agree with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young that Baltimore needs to invest more in its youth, but we don't think this charter amendment is the right way to do it. The measure calls for three cents of every $100 in assessed value in the city to be placed in the Children and Youth Fund — currently the equivalent of about $11 million a year. That would come on top of the hundreds of millions the city already spends on education, before and after school programs and recreation. We object on principle to mandating an arbitrary level of spending for any cause, no matter how worthwhile. When tough times come for the city budget — as they do with regularity — such a requirement will force the city to cut from other vital needs regardless of the relative merits of whatever programs (as yet undefined) that will get funding from this set-aside.

If it is enacted, we are encouraged at least by Mr. Young's desire to use participatory budgeting processes to determine how some of the money is spent. Allowing residents a more direct say in setting the city's spending priorities would be an important democratic exercise and could help ensure the money goes where it can best be used.

For Question H

When the Inner Harbor was initially developed, voters decided to prohibit food concessions in certain areas, partially out of a desire to preserve open space and partially to protect existing business owners from competition. Question H would allow the creation of small, limited-service, seasonal outdoor cafes near Rash Field and West Shore Park. Such concessions are common in urban parks. The idea here is not to create destination restaurants but places where parents whose kids are playing in the Sondheim Fountain can buy an ice cream, or volleyball players on Rash Field can get a sports drink or a sandwich. It's a good idea with virtually no down-side.

For Question I

Baltimore's lack of regular agency audits has been a big issue in recent years, and this measure improves upon a 2012 charter amendment requiring them. This new measure increases the schedule for audits of principal city agencies to every two years instead of every four, and it adds three more agencies to the list for audits. The amendment also ensures greater independence in the way audits are conducted. Presently, many audits are conducted by the Department of Finance, which reports to the mayor; this amendment puts them all under the auspices of the comptroller's office. It also sets up an advisory board to help auditors determine what metrics should be used in performance audits — for example, should the Department of Transportation be judged on how quickly it fills potholes or how regularly it inspects bridges? It's an important step toward providing more efficient and transparent city government.

For Question J

Question J also creates a dedicated fund within city government for a worthwhile cause — this time, affordable housing — but does so without mandating a particular amount or source of funding. Rather, it merely sets up a structure for the city to use to allocate funds from the general budget, one-time monies, donations or other sources. This amendment doesn't come from the council but rather from the efforts of advocates to gather enough signatures to petition it to the ballot. Hundreds of other local governments have such funds, including those in Montgomery and Howard counties, and they have been effective in ensuring the availability of safe housing for low-income residents in a way Baltimore's current, toothless affordable housing statute doesn't.

For Questions A-D

Baltimore has just gone through a massive debate about issuing bonds related to the Port Covington development, so some voters may look at proposed bond issues on the ballot with a jaundiced eye. These are different. They are routine borrowing, backed by the full faith and credit of the city, not to benefit any particular private developer. Question A authorizes $6 million in borrowing for efforts to bolster Baltimore's efforts to provide affordable housing. Question B authorizes $34 million in borrowing for school construction and renovation. Question C allows $45 million in borrowing to support economic development efforts, and Question D authorizes $45 million for parks and recreation facilities. Baltimore has a AA or AA- bond rating from all three major rating agencies, which is better than many other cities of its size and wealth, a sign of strong fiscal management and the ability to repay such debts.

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