Baltimore mayoral candidates vowed to cut property taxes, expand job programs for teenagers and invest more money in neighborhoods at a forum sponsored by two civil rights groups Wednesday night.

Former city planning director Otis Rolley drew applause when he vowed to build new schools and recreation centers and when he criticized Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's spending cuts to youth programs.

"If you can raise $800,000 in one night for your campaign, you should be able to raise more money for summer jobs," said Rolley. "But if your priorities are out of whack, you can't do that for the youth of Baltimore City."

Rolley and his fellow challengers in the Democratic primary — state Sen. Catherine Pugh, City Councilman Carl Stokes, former Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. and local activist Wilton Wilson — addressed a crowd of about 100 people at the forum at Coppin State University, which was sponored by the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Congress.

Rawlings-Blake was unable to attend because of a previous engagement, a campaign spokeswoman said.

The forum provided one of the first opportunities for the candidates to debate publicly. The filing deadline for the race is July 5; the primary, the winner of which is expected to be the next mayor in the heavily Democratic city, is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Conaway provoked gasps from the audience with some statements about race.

"You can be black on the outside and white on the inside," he said. "You want a mayor who is going to think black."

In response to a question on education, Conaway said that students received a better schooling during the days of segregation.

"It was a mistake to desegrate schools," he said. "They're segregated now anyway."

Pugh, a former city councilwoman and member of the House of Delegates, stressed the contributions that she had made to education. She has backed legislation to create alternative schools and is leading the creation of a city public high school for students interested in design.

Pugh elicited cheers with comments about a planned juvenile jail.

"We're too quick to incarcerate, rather than educate," she said.

Landers, who announced Wednesday that he was stepping down as vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtor to focus on the campaign, received a warm reception in response to his proposal to create a tiered property tax structure in which vacant and derelict properties would be taxed at a higher rate.

"We've got to stop penalizing people for fixing up their homes and adding to our tax base," he said. Pugh, Rolley and Stokes also have advocated for a reduction in the city's property tax rate, which is double that of surrounding counties.

Rawlings-Blake's finance department released a report last week that said half a million new residents would be needed to counteract the revenue lost by such a cut.

Landers argued that the city gives too many tax breaks to big development projects and should seek funding help from the surrounding counties for city amenities that draw people from the region.

Stokes, the co-founder of a city charter school, said Baltimore needs to increase funding for education. He noted that the city devoted a smaller portion of its overall budget to schools than did the surrounding counties.

Rolley defended some of the more unusual aspects of his platform, such as seeking to restore mayoral control of schools and pushing for state legislation to require new municipal employees to live in the city.

"You don't have to live here, but if you don't live here, as mayor, I won't hire you," he said. "Anything worth doing is worth fighting for, and I want to fight for Baltimore for the first time in a long time."