In her third “State of the City” speech today, Mayor Catherine Pugh seized the chance to tout accomplishments on fighting crime, finding new leadership for the city’s trouble police department and investing in neighborhoods. She also acknowledged Baltimore is staring down formidable challenges.
“Baltimore, Baltimoreans, friends, neighbors, residents, business owners and stakeholders: Together we can grow Baltimore, we can be prosperous and we will be safe as we improve the quality of life for us all,” the mayor said in a speech threaded with a focus on that phrase, quality of life.
We’ve put together some highlights from the roughly 35-minute address from the chambers of City Hall, though feel free to go and watch it for yourself here (Pugh’s speech starts around the 24-minute mark).
Crime is down, but it must go further
“There is not a single person in this city, including me, that can say we are satisfied with where crime stands in this city today,” Pugh told the crowd. She noted Baltimore’s homicide tally in 2018 reached 309, a 10 percent reduction from one year earlier, and said her multi-agency Violence Reduction Initiative helped reduce murders in eight targeted areas by 24 percent.
Nevertheless, “one life lost in this city remains one life too many,” she said.
Pugh said city agencies, nonprofits, philanthropies and, crucially, private businesses, must step up to engage youth and put them to work, offering compassion and alternatives to entrepreneurial lives of crime.
She noted Roca, a nonprofit anti-violence program targeting 17-to-24-year-olds (with a $17 million price tag) has arrived, and the Mayor’s Office of African-American Male Engagement has been working with young people to connect them to jobs. “We believe both programs can help us reduce crime.”
Her larger message on crime: “It is the single most important factor in improving the quality of life for us all, so we can and must do better.”
Harrison is here
Pugh continued to sing the praises of Michael Harrison, the city’s new top cop, who was confirmed just minutes ago. Harrison was a cop in New Orleans for the last 28 years, four of them spent implementing federally mandated reforms for the once-troubled New Orleans Police Department as its superintendent.
Pugh lauded Harrison’s work already in streamlining and improving CitiStat to make it more transparent, and his focus on launching a new recruitment program to shore up the department’s ranks.
“You have my full commitment to support your efforts in reforming this police department, changing the cultural behavior, implementing the consent decree, creating a more constitutional, community-engaged department and driving down crime,” she said, addressing Harrison.
Community college is now free, but kids still need better schools
Pugh seized a chance to celebrate the success of her progressive move to make community college free in Baltimore City. More than 500 high school graduates enrolled at Baltimore City Community College in fall of 2018, and they will all have the chance to continue learning tuition-free upon earning an associate’s degree if they attend Coppin State University, which has offered the same deal to graduates from BCCC.
Even so, tuition alone doesn’t cover all of those students’ needs, as many of them face challenges in paying for transportation and housing and maintaining support systems. She said her office is leading an effort to fund construction of a new dormitory to accommodate those who are struggling “because their environments are not conducive to learning.”
Baltimore has even more widespread and pressing needs before the post-secondary level, including a supply of adequate environs for elementary, middle and high school students to learn. She called on state officials to further invest in the Baltimore City Public School System.
“We are thankful for the $1.2 billion we were able to obtain from the state,” but “even with that investment we still have schools with no running water. We need more, as much as we need [the Kirwan Commission] to adjust the funding formula to help us improve our outcomes for our children who are deserving of a quality education.”
Pugh was keeping count on the number of new schools that opened here last year. There were seven added under Baltimore’s 21st Century Schools plan, and seven others are scheduled for ribbon cuttings this year, she said.
New options to get around
How could Pugh ignore the hundreds of scooters now dotting the city’s sidewalks, none of which were here around this time last year? The mayor said through the end of 2018, more than 180,000 users had completed over 650,000 trips on Bird and Lime e-scooters—plus a much smaller total of 4,635 trips on Lime’s rentable bikes—that the city has allowed for pilot testing. It’s helping to reduce Baltimore’s carbon footprint while also making the city more pedestrian-friendly, she said.
The mayor didn’t have much news on bike lanes, which are severely lacking in funding for 2019 and approaching years in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, though she did say they’re “being accommodated.”
Use business for growth, but make it’s equitable
Pugh today said she’s “challenging all of our local companies and enterprises and corporations to help us grow Baltimore” by staying put and investing in the city’s population and neighborhoods.
But it must be done equitably, and that includes considering who’s being paid to do the work in a city that’s 63 percent black. Pugh said when it comes to contracting, any work by larger firms “must include African-Americans and other minority participation.” She added bluntly, “we must stop the excuses and just do it.”
Water is getting more expensive, but at least it’s city-owned
While Baltimore’s water rates are rising by 10 percent annually over the next three years–with more increases expected thereafter–at least the system will remain under the city’s control, Pugh said.
“Privatizing our water system is not an option,” she declared, nodding to her protective charter language that was later buffered by a voter-approved ordinance banning any sale of the water system to a private entity.
But “to maintain its value, we must fix the pipes,” Pugh said, acknowledging the steep rate increases as a worthy way to fund the work. She said a recently announced $202 million federal loan to help the city pay for its consent decree-bound infrastructural fixes can help cut costs and stave off more increases even further down the line. She also claimed that “because we maintain ownership, we will be able to reduce those prices and find cost savings to return to our citizens.”
Invest in Baltimore’s neighborhoods
Pugh touted the money committed for neighborhood investment, including her administration’s Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, which she said has already grown in value from $52 million at its inception to more than $80 million. Separately, she mentioned $10 million in operating funds awarded for neighborhood associations and community development corporations.
Pugh also pointed to the Trump administration’s splashy addition of Opportunity Zones, where investors can defer payment of taxes for years in exchange for financing projects in pre-designated areas of need. Baltimore has 42 of them—around a third of all of them in Maryland—and Prudential Financial has already jumped in as the first investor for one, pouring an undisclosed amount of money into the $150 million, mixed-use Yard 56 development near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical center.
The city has also received a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for a sweeping development plan to transform a swath of the east side, which includes razing and redeveloping the Perkins Homes and other areas nearby.
More broadly, Pugh highlighted her administration’s cuts to property tax rates through the budgeting process, an effort she said should make things easier on homeowners. When the newest rate takes effect this July, the city’s overall property tax rate will have fallen to $2.048 per $100 of assessed value, down 20 cents from when she took office. And, she’s targeted another 5-cent reduction for fiscal 2021, she said, bringing the effective property tax rate to just shy of $2 per $100 of assessed value. (City property tax rates still remain significantly higher than those of surrounding counties, we’ll note.)
“We intend to be aggressive and financially responsible,” Pugh said, “and at the same time will pursue other property tax reduction opportunities to make Baltimore more competitive with the surrounding jurisdictions.”
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