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Next mayor must bring sound management practices to Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Jose Jimenez of Baltimore city places his ballot in a ballot box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters.
Jose Jimenez of Baltimore city places his ballot in a ballot box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc throughout the region, a deep long-term financial crisis looms for Baltimore.

The taxes and fees the city relies upon for income have been dramatically hit. Downtown parking garages are empty. Tourism has ground to a halt. Hotel bookings are nearly non-existent. As unemployment rises, income tax revenues will fall. The list of revenue shortages goes on and on.

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It all adds up to a dire financial outlook for cities like Baltimore. Recently, Mayor Jack Young’s administration estimated the shortfall at $68 million this fiscal year. And that’s just the carnage expected by the end of June. Forecasts for the coming fiscal year estimate the city could be short another $103 million.

Will the money come roaring back when Baltimore opens up again? Of course not. There’s no magical switch to flip that quickly restores the city’s financial strength.

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COVID-19 impacts will linger into the future. Some businesses will not return. Others will have fewer workers. Nonprofits will see fewer donations. Tourism? Restaurants? All will suffer longer-term consequences.

We’re now less than a week until the primary election. The election will help determine the next mayor, council president and council members.

Given the pandemic, Baltimore voters should reevaluate not what they desire from their next leaders, but more importantly the attributes they require to get through the looming financial crises.

Job one for the next mayor is skillfully dealing with the economic fallout. Nobody will drop bags of money on city hall to restore the lost revenue. The next mayor will need to bring sound management practices and financial discipline to the job. With Baltimore in drastic need of more (not less) resources, tightening city spending won’t be easy.

It starts with recognition that city government cannot fund all that we desire. Simply cutting budgets by an arbitrary percentage across city departments is a prescription for failure. It will lead to a city government that spends a lot of money, but achieves unacceptable results.

A strong commitment to a different management approach is needed. The next mayor, with the City Council’s support, must return to the basics of municipal government. Prioritizing basic city services is critical. Crime reduction, education and infrastructure are at the top of many people’s lists. Funding those basic services equitably across all neighborhoods must be the top priority.

In order to achieve this, our next mayor must have the internal fortitude to say “no” to many worthwhile projects that we cannot afford right now. Doing a few things very well instead of many things poorly will have greater impact. Once the current financial crises ebbs, worthwhile projects can be added back. But with revenue falling, now is not the time for that.

A knowledgeable urban government expert recently told me the greatest impediment to positive momentum is a resistance to change. The expert cited a culture of “we’ve always done it this way” or “Baltimore is unique … new ideas won’t work here” is particularly pervasive in our city. This way of thinking must be challenged on all levels.

Providing better service with smaller budgets requires a commitment to bring sound management principles across all city departments. Redefining job functions with the goal of increased productivity will give us better results.

Let’s look across America for those municipalities with innovative ideas. Recruit the best minds locally and nationally to help us implement “best in the business” practices here.

Engaging the city workforce and their representatives in the process is important. The commitment to new ideas must be ingrained from the top down into the ranks of the people who make the city run.

We cannot keep plodding along as we have before with less resources to address a growing list of problems. With strong leadership led by a mayor and City Council we can reinvent city government.

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Our city is at a tipping point. No matter who is the next mayor, Baltimore’s citizens must hold that person accountable for strong management of taxpayer dollars. We don’t have the luxury of hearing more rosy promises. We need results.

Honest, dynamic leadership, committed to sound management practices, will bring constructive change. If we achieve that change, Baltimore can emerge from this current economic crisis as the special place we all want it to be.

Jay Newman (jaynewman@comcast.net) is the former president of WJZ Television and a community leader in North Baltimore.

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