by George Liebmann
The Report of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s 151-member Transition Team is a disappointing document. Even though it was prepared under severe time constraints, its defects are hard to excuse. It does not provide a useful guide to what had to be done to meet the City’s short-term fiscal problems; for that, the new Mayor had to look to her own fiscal officers. Nor does it provide any long-term vision of where the City should be headed. Rather it provides a pastiche of off-the-cuff suggestions and agency wish lists, some meritorious enough, but lacking any theme or sense of direction.
The report recommends added storm water charges and an increased hotel tax, reduction in the use of fire equipment in association with ambulance responses, the transfer of Head Start to an education agency, a new look at the City’s employee health benefit plans, a commuter tax, privatized trash collection, rationalization of the City’s vehicle fleet, inventorying of city properties and the use of schools as recreation centers. Nearly all these suggestions, worthy and unworthy, have been made before and have foundered for various political reasons. The report also recommends various reorganizations and combinations of agencies and the creation of a myriad of coordinating committees, the product of a touching faith in bureaucratic centralization.
The road not taken is that contained in various earlier Calvert reports–one which would undertake to stimulate bottom-up private and civic enterprise. A statute enabling block-level land readjustment agencies, familiar in Europe and Japan, would be a useful initiative. So would rationalization of the city’s street network and improved procedures for street closings. So would a cumulative zoning ordinance opening up additional areas for mixed-use and apartment development. So would an ordinance allowing creation of accessory apartments in owner-occupied single-family homes. So would provisions allowing street abutters to petition for traffic calming and neighborhood street governance. The report notes the existence of provisions for School Family Councils in each school, but suggests nothing to give them budgets, revenues, by-laws, or statutory functions. Such ideas do not appeal to bureaucrats, or those duped by bureaucrats.
The report actually recommends reduction of the entertainment tax, originally conceived as a mechanism for obtaining suburban support for city cultural activities. Vague suggestions for land banks are unaccompanied by any suggestion that new town developments be fostered in the regions where there are larger numbers of vacant and city-owned lots. The city’s crime and drug problems are completely unaddressed, as is its criminal justice system. There are no suggestions for school drug testing as an alternative approach to criminalization, nor is it suggested that maximum penalties for minor drug offenses be reduced below the jury trial threshold so that the District Court can impose effective testing and treatment sanctions. Nor are there proposals for reduction in the number of peremptory challenges allowed in criminal cases, which would improve the efficiency and enhance the even-handedness of the criminal justice system. There are likewise no proposals for arresting the decline of the City’s parochial school system or nurturing and providing facilities for charter schools, although Calvert reports have demonstrated that the school system is the single most important spur to flight from the City. Nor are there proposals for reform of the business personal property tax and its replacement by a broad based and mild Business Enterprise tax on the New Hampshire model, or other tax reforms which would cast smaller burdens on manufacturing and greater ones on nonprofit and service industries.
It is to be hoped that the new Mayor does not believe that this assemblage of 151 ‘usual suspects’ has exhausted the possibilities for municipal reform.