Trash fees and restructured pensions not well received
Yesterday Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake delivered her fourth State of the City address, calling on 'bold reforms' to fix a looming long-term structural deficit and a current financial shortfall. Her solution to this problem again focused on more tax increases – having imposed the most taxes and fees over her three years in office than any other county executive in Maryland; while also proposing to restructure the city pension system - making city workers contribute more to their retirement fund.
Pointing to a 'comprehensive financial report' her administration outsourced to a Philadelphia-based consulting company last year – at the tune of $450,000 taxpayer dollars – the Mayor addressed the financial uncertainty the report concluded. Facing a possible $750 structural deficit over the next 10-years, the report pointed to the two biggest problems being that of the city's antiquated and costly pension system, as well as the health care costs of city employees.
“We must re-balance the way we compensate our hard-working employees by reforming outdated, unsustainable benefits,” by investing in better wages up-front.
Proposing to shift to a 401(k) styled retirement plan for all new civilian hires, the Mayor also said she would look to bring the elected official retirement plan in-line with the civilian retirement plan. “We should create a hybrid retirement plan that keeps our benefits competitive but reduces risk and allows us to improve salaries up-front,” said the first term Mayor.
She is also coming after the fire department by asking them to work longer hours, going from 42 to 52-hour shifts, increasing the pay, but cutting an already short-staffed workforce by at least 10%. After praising the work that they do, the Mayor continued her assault on the men and women who wear the uniform – after closing multiple fire stations last year.
Pointing to her '10-year plan' like she has done in the past two State of the City addresses (meaning it should now be an eight year plan if we're two years in), Mayor Rawlings-Blake promised “not to balance an estimated $750 million structural deficit solely on the backs of city residents and employees”. Yet in the same breath suggested imposing a 'user fee' for trash collection, “creating a new solid waste enterprise for trash, recycling and sanitation...that we can use to cut property taxes, dollar-for-dollar”.
However, some residents were skeptical of such a fee, stating that every time she wants to raise another controversial tax or fee, she uses these scare tactic speeches to incite fear amongst the electorate. “What happened to the slots revenue you promised last year would go to property tax reduction; 90% of it in fact? My rate is still the same,” questioned Andy Pierre, a spectator at the address and member of the Independent Movement of Maryland.
Pierre and other local activists like Jason Rodriguez were also concerned about the public safety portion of her address; as she pointed to the usual padded statistics of homicides being at an all time low – though they slightly increased last year. “It is not a straight-line trend of progress, as we've suffered painful setbacks and precious lives were lost that cannot be brought back,” said Rawlings-Blake.
Yet she chose to highlight a reduction in violent crime that most residents don't see when they step out their front door; praising a department who had an increase in officer-related homicides last year – and six officer-related shootings of civilians this year alone.
“We're six weeks into 2013 and already we're averaging an officer-related shooting a week; with none of these officers being held accountable and brought up on charges,” says Rodriguez, who is the Baltimore area coordinator for Cop Watch. “She said in her speech that her and Commissioner Batts 'demand professional courtesy and respect for all city residents from every officer'? However, with state's attorney [Gregg] Bernstein in the front row, I didn't hear her questioning his decision(s) not to prosecute any of the officers who took these 'precious lives' last year? Hypocrisy at its worst!”
Rawlings-Blake, who was just recently appointed Secretary of the DNC, also put in a plug of support for her democratic colleagues, and their push for stricter gun control laws. “Governor O'Malley and President Obama have both proposed bold legislation worthy of our support,” said Rawlings-Blake in her address. Joined by Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, she promised to work closely with the county executive to “stand together in reducing gun violence; from the National Harbor to the Inner Harbor”. But some conservative advocates of the second amendment weren't too pleased with a push from an inner-city Mayor whose homicides are committed by unregistered guns; and neither were other more liberal black activists.
“I'm not sure why these politicians think you can legislate your way out of gun violence, especially in Baltimore City where I can guarantee you that 98% of the gun crimes and homicides committed weren't a result of someone with a registered weapon,” said Brian Keith Easley on a Facebook post, a local leader and educator of young adults. “Stronger gun laws don't reduce gun violence, especially in the 'hood'!”
She made a lot of promises, but the one key initiative she declined to discuss was a critical issue some on the council, and even in the community, think is the biggest overhaul needed for change – the elimination of TIFs (Tax Increment Finance) and PILOTs (Payment in Leu of Taxes). Otherwise known as big tax breaks to wealthy businesses and corporations looking to do business in the city, people like 13th district Councilman Carl Stokes have been calling on their elimination for years. “How you can give those already well off these sweetheart deals yet nickel-and-dime the hard-working taxpayers of this city with every tax and fee you can think of is just a backwards economic strategy in my humble opinion,” said the East Baltimore representative.
And community activist Kim Trueheart agreed, as the outspoken leader who was previously barred from City Hall for confronting the Mayor “too aggressively”, made her way back into the halls of justice for the speech. “She isn't saying nothing new, just the same old speech given the past two years with different words – or the same words used differently,” said Trueheart, who couldn't understand how someone closes multiple rec centers for our youth, and then proposes to build ten new ones in the future?
Mayor Rawlings-Blake promised that “if we implement all these changes, we can reward Baltimore's future with...” 1)correcting Baltimore's structural deficit and preventing future cuts and service erosion to police, fire, sanitation and recreation 2)sustain our commitment to school renovations 3)prevent future furloughs and pay freezes, raise employee take-home pay and provide affordable benefits 4)quadruple the dollars to the Vacants to Value housing demolition to $100 million 5)increase capital funding to rebuild ten rec centers and expand local funding for transportation. Sounds like an awful lot, especially when the promises of last year, and the year before, have yet to be fulfilled?
“If that's the case then what about that regressive bottle tax you swore would generate $23 million annually and help persuade state lawmakers in giving us $300 million in bond authority dollars for our local schools,” questioned Shaun Louis, outgoing Vice-Chairman of IMPAC. “I guess you sold everybody but the other 164-members of the legislature who aren't members of the city delegation huh?”
In fact, improving city schools and a looming $1 billion infrastructure deficit the Mayor pointed to, was highlighted in a 'strategy' the city has, which won't be one of “simply begging the state for a blank check with no strings attached”. Pointing to the state's constitution, Mayor Rawlings-Blake pointed out that the framers of our state constitution did not intend for a child's zip code, or the wealth of a local tax base, to be the determining factors of whether or not the school they attend is in good repair. “We have a responsibility to take our own local action and put forward viable solutions,” said the very stern, no nonsence Mayor.
However, one Baltimore County state legislator disagreed with her assessment, saying that it would be foolish of neighboring jurisdictions to make such a long-term financial commitment to a jurisdiction that has a history of “screwing up their own money”. Speaking on the condition of anonymity based on their position on the committee that would have to vote on this matter, this legislator believes that the city has to do a better job of convincing other officials from around the state that they have their house in order.
“They had $58 million go missing when the Governor was Mayor of Baltimore, then I just read an article (written by Erica Green and Luke Broadwater) where schools in Baltimore are again having money come up missing? So what sensible corporation would then lend another corporation (which Baltimore is) that type of money, for such a long period of time, with financial woes like that? It certainly has nothing to do with the children, but unfortunately their learning has become casualties of war based on the screw ups of their elders.”
However, looking to secure such funding from Annapolis during the 2013 legislative session, the city now is reportedly set to hire former city state senator turned lobbyist Barbara Hoffman to help lobby other state legislators for the capital expenditure project. “Good luck! Barbara is great, and very well respected; but when your former Mayor, who again is now the state's Chief Executive, has yet to sign on to the request and push for it like he did Gay Marriage, the Death Penalty and the Dream Act; it shows you that something isn't up to snuff?”
However the Mayor isn't ready to give up just yet, and says that she is open to any compromise or alternative - so long as it 'doesn't compromise a child's right to attend a quality school in good repair'. “Keeping the status quo would only serve to fail our students, and that is unacceptable!”
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