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Baltimore will get better, but only if we make it so

It's tough to be from Baltimore. Friends supply assurances that things will get better, but we can't simply hope that time will heal most wounds. We are in trouble, and we are not nearly the city we want to be. Here are five ideas we hope can push us closer to being a city on the hill.

1. Employ fewer council people.

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We support 15 members on the Baltimore City Council; 14 are elected by district, and a president is elected at large. Since there are 14 legislative districts in Baltimore, each elected member is a monopolist — head of his or her own fiefdom. This lends itself to political favoritism. Moreover, having so many council people makes it difficult to hold them accountable; there are simply too many to monitor. A recent Baltimore Sun review of nearly 700 City Council committee votes indicates that about a quarter of council members miss their committee votes. Three members missed more than half their votes.

There are also finances to consider. Each of these council people "earn" more than $60,000 per annum serving in these part-time positions in a city of a bit more than 620,000. Other communities support fewer council people and seem to get by just fine. San Francisco, with a population of more than 850,000, has 11 council members; vibrant Seattle, home to more than 650,000 people, supports only nine council members; and Baltimore County, with a population greater than 825,000, supports seven.

2. Tear down vacant homes at a Detroit-like pace.

Whether during the riots or their immediate aftermath, images of Baltimore's abandoned housing stock were on display. Why is this housing stock still in existence? The mayor and City Council are already the largest owners of real estate in Baltimore, and they have significant control over those property owners who have code violations attached to their properties, unpaid taxes and water bills. Detroit figured it out. They recently increased their pace of demolitions from 200 homes per month to 200 per week, though they've also run into funding issues this year.

3. Offer property tax reductions every year without fail.

In her most recent budget, the mayor failed to offer a property tax reduction. Mistake. People are willing to buy into an enterprise with promise even before much of that promise is realized. In financial markets, people search for the next hot stock — the company that's under the radar screen but loaded with potential. Today, Baltimore's property tax rate is not competitive. But more middle class residents will buy into the city if there is a credible promise that the city will chip away at its tax rate year after year. City Hall hasn't bought into this notion yet, but eventually, someone farsighted will.

4. Build a new arena and expand the convention center.

Baltimore obviously has bigger issues than an outdated arena and inadequately sized convention center. But investing in new visitor and meeting capacity is important and represents a way that the state of Maryland can constructively support Baltimore's beleaguered business community. This past legislative session, the governor and general assembly did a credible job dealing with the bulk of the state's structural fiscal shortfalls. For now, the state's AAA bond rating seems secure. Let's leverage that into investment that creates jobs and causes people to reconsider Baltimore.

5. Say no to aggressive panhandling.

We call it the central business district for a reason. Downtowns are about commerce; no shame in that. But wherever one goes, whether in front of Camden Yards or at any prominent intersection, there are panhandlers, many of them aggressive and persistent. In 2011, New Orleans passed a law against aggressive panhandling in its French Quarter including approaching or following pedestrians, repetitive soliciting, or the intentional blocking of pedestrian or vehicular traffic. The city bans panhandling in or near parks and playgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, panhandling cannot occur within 20 feet of an intersection or market crosswalk.

It is time for Baltimore to remind the balance of the world that we can be a gracious, welcoming and charming city. Driving away business and tax base helps no one, particularly those who rely most upon city services.

Anirban Basu (abasu@sagepolicy.com) was a member of Gov. Larry Hogan's transition team and is CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc, where Elizabeth Martin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is an intern.

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