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City policies are killing Baltimore

Staggered by a succession of crises — civil rights violations, corruption convictions and the unsolved killing of a homicide detective — the Baltimore Police Department is closing out its dismal year with a depleted force struggling to contain soaring violent crime while restoring wavering public trust. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun video)

The sad reality is that Baltimore City, through its policies, has engaged in suicidal behavior for decades. I am concerned about our city’s direction. The plight of minorities and the poor has not been alleviated over recent decades. Too many leaders in our city have failed to acknowledge this reality and are supporting or accepting policies that won’t change the future.

These policies fall into three major areas: public schools, tax and business, and crime fighting.

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Public Schools

Pouring more money, absent accountability, into a public school system that by every objective measure is failing most of its students amounts to stealing our children’s futures. We have endured decades of unaccountability for hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls and a school system that:

  • Is top heavy with administrative positions;
  • Protects ineffective teachers through tenure and other rules preventing their firing;
  • Discourages some of the best talent from becoming teachers through cumbersome state teacher certification requirements;
  • Boosts the graduation rate by allowing many seniors to complete a project rather than take “required” exams;
  • Underfunds public charter schools, despite the proven success of many;
  • Focuses on reducing the number of student suspensions regardless of how dangerous the young person’s behavior, at the expense of a safe teaching and learning environment;
  • Squanders a $1 billion largess for new and renovated schools because of highly inflated costs caused by government bidding and green building requirements.
Business Policies

Far too many of Baltimore’s policies are blatantly anti-business. The city’s property tax rate is more than double the rates of the surrounding jurisdictions, rendering the city uncompetitive in attracting residents and businesses. For example, the median home value in Anne Arundel County is nearly three times higher than in the city, according to Zillow ($334,300 compared to $123,100), yet the annual property tax bill on that median home is less than 10 percent higher than the one in the city (annual taxes of $3,032 on the more expensive home, compared to $2,763 on the less expensive city home). Empty nesters cannot downsize in the city because their taxes could rise. Millennials who want to start families cannot afford to stay in the city (much less risk the school system). That’s why city officials grant tax breaks to big developers: They know the taxes are unsustainably high. Small businesses and residents are left holding the bag.

Failed efforts to boost the minimum wage, ban plastic bags and tax sugar in the city also sent a message to businesses that they’re not welcome here. After Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed legislation that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour, the city gained the promise of another 150 workers over the next few years when Holly Poultry announced plans to grow, offering stable manufacturing jobs with a starting pay of $9.50 per hour — below what the bill would have offered, but above the current minimum wage of $8.75. Such expansion may not have been possible had the $15 law stood.

Crime Fighting

The revolving door of gun-toting juvenile and adult repeat violent offenders is well publicized; complaints of so-called excessive incarceration ring hollow. A concentrated group of individuals — perhaps several hundred — are responsible for the vast majority of the violence in Baltimore City. The police commissioner and the cops on the beat know this. Yet there is no sustained outrage over the level of violence, which, as of this writing, has produced 335 murders — the victims mostly African American men — so far in 2017 (more than New York City). Many groups focus on the injustices of a few rogue cops rather than saving lives of law abiding city residents.

Yes, there have been actual instances of police brutality against city residents, which the prior mayoral administration chose to hide through secret settlements. But there is a false narrative that police brutality is out of control and rising, which dilutes the focus on reducing violent crime. Government data does not support this narrative. And shootings by police have been falling dramatically for years around the country. In New York City, shootings by police dropped from 314 in 1971 (93 of them fatal) to 23 in 2015 (with eight of them fatal). A 2016 Harvard study further found that since 2000, African Americans were “23.8 percent less likely to be shot at by police relative to whites.” As of October, there have been 4 shootings by police in Baltimore in 2017, 3 fatal — down from 11 shootings last year, 4 of them fatal and lower than in previous years: 22 shootings in 2009, 21 in 2008 and 33 in 2007, according to Baltimore Sun data.

These policies are clearly hurting our city. Even winning the Amazon “HQ2” would not make these problems disappear. Unfortunately, few city officials and business leaders appear willing to speak up on behalf of our citizens.

David F. Tufaro (dtufaro@terranovaventures.com) is the founder of Terra Nova Ventures LLC.

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