Vowing to hold their feet to the fire, the Baltimore interfaith group BUILD lined up four mayoral candidates for an “accountability session” Thursday, asking them to pledge to take very specific, very ambitious actions.
Would the candidates dial back on tax breaks and other subsidies for downtown tourist projects? Would they spend a whopping $2.8 billion to build 28 new schools and renovate 134 of them? Would they double funding for after-school programs to $10 million?
Whipped up by a pew-pounding crowd of about 375 people at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Oliver St., the BUILD panelists at one point demanded a “yes” or “no” answer for these and other questions.
“Yes!” said Otis Rolley III, when asked if he’d double after-school programs.
“Yes!” said another candidate, Sen. Catherine Pugh.
“Yes!” said incumbent mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who, actually, in the last budget, cut 2,000 jobs from the city’s Youth Works summer job program for teenagers.
The only candidate willing to say “no” very much was Joseph T. “Jody” Landers.
“Nobody Shivers in Hotel Rooms”
How meaningful could all these yeses be?
Not much by themselves. Still, there were some revealing moments produced by the sharp back-and-forth, as panelists deconstructed those one-word answers.
Most revealing? The answers to this question:
Would they impose a moratorium on tax breaks and other subsidies for downtown developers, in general – and bakery magnate-turned-Harbor-East-developer John Paterakis Sr. in particular – until the whole process could be reviewed?
Tax-breaks for ritzy waterfront hotels, office towers and other downtown buildings have been a rallying point for BUILD, as the group highlights the plight of the city’s dilapidated schools and struggling neighborhoods.
As disclosed by The Brew last month, the city last year gave $14.5 million in property tax breaks to just 12 Harbor East and downtown buildings, with two-thirds of the breaks going to Paterakis-controlled entities.
The city is also considering a request by developer David S. Cordish for $3 million in rent relief for his Inner Harbor Power Plant buildings – again first reported by this website.
“The last time I visited the Inner Harbor, it didn’t look like a blighted neighborhood,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of BUILD and the pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church. The audience cheered and clapped.
“Nobody shivered in hotel conference rooms because boilers hadn’t been replaced in 20 years,” he said.
There was anger in the room, as Rev. Connors contrasted ill-heated schools in poor neighborhoods with government-subsidized luxury hotels.
Landers and Rolley clapped heartily along with the crowd. Incumbent Rawlings-Blake sat stone-faced, hands in her lap.
The standing-room-only crowd included prominent ministers and WOLB radio talk show host Larry Young. Former Senator Theater owner (and last-minute candidate for city council president) Tom Kiefaber was sitting in the front row. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, best known for his trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King Jr., was in the back, standing up.
Those tax breaks are “somehow,” Foster Connors said, with withering scorn, “supposed to trickle down” to the neighborhoods. But they don’t, he said: “the path we have been on is not working.”
“Not Going to Talk Out of Both Sides of My Mouth”
So, a BUILD panelist asked, would the candidates agree, as mayor, to seek a new path and in the meantime impose a moratorium on deals for developers, particularly a developer named Paterakis?
Rawlings-Blake wasn’t going there. She chided the questioner for “pitting downtown against the neighborhoods.”
“I am not going to sit here and talk out of both sides of my mouth,” she said, defending the use of tax breaks to support downtown businesses.
“Let me be clear,” she said. “I support economic development and neighborhood development.”
Rolley’s reply was that there wouldn’t be any need to review the tax break issue because, under his administration, “the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) will no longer be in existence.”
“There would be no reason to halt economic development and community development until we figure it out,” he said, “because we would have already figured it out.”
But would there be tax breaks or subsidies to developers in his administration? None would be permitted, he said, “unless it was resulting in jobs and opportunities for all of Baltimore.”
Landers said, “I’d be a much harder bargainer than the current BDC,” but also said he wanted to “let you in on a nasty little secret.” That $14 million subsidy last year to developers, he said, pales in comparison to the revenue the city is losing due to its shriveling population and shrinking tax base.
“This year,” he noted, “the city has projected a decline in its property tax base of nearly a billion dollars.”
The major plank in Landers’ platform is a drastic property tax cut, aimed at stimulating growth in the population and economy. Rolley and Pugh call for large property tax cuts, too. On Thursday, Rawlings-Blake repeatedly called her opponents’ tax cut ideas “reckless.”
“Takes Faith and Money”
The major plank in BUILD’s agenda, meanwhile, is $2.8 billion to rebuild or rehab school buildings. But Rolley refused to commit to it, noting that the state is the primary source of school funding and that the mayor only controls a fraction of the education budget.
“My momma told me, ‘Don’t lie in church!’ ” Rolley quipped.
When pressed by BUILD co-chair Rev. Douglas I. Miles, bishop of Koinonia Baptist Church, Rolley would only commit to making “a start” toward their goal.
Landers said pretty much the same thing as Rolley, pointing out that it takes more than faith to give city children better schools: “It takes faith and money.”
On this subject, Rawlings-Blake said, “I do support school construction. . . I have a plan.” She was referring to the as-yet unreleased report of a task force she created in November to come up with a way to repair city school facilities. Their report was due in February.
“I will make it happen,” she said. “I will lead you.”
Pugh answered the school funding question by saying “my answer is ‘yes,’ ” and went on to recount how “I am building a new school in the city.” (This was a reference to the new city school on Oliver Street, focusing on fashion, graphic design and architecture, spearheaded by Pugh and Maryland Institute College of Art president Fred Lazarus.)
“Trust me with your children,” she said.
“Asking For Crumbs”
Other commitments were sought in yes-or-no fashion. Would they create a community investment fund, that would match spending on downtown development dollar-for-dollar with spending on communities? “Yes,” Pugh said. “No,” Rolley answered, such a plan would “short-change” neighborhoods.
“I will not do that. That’s not equity . . . It’s asking for crumbs,” Rolley said. “The city budget should be the community investment fund.”
Miles asked if that would result in more money for the neighborhoods? “Yes,” Rolley replied, and Miles appeared satisfied.
Asked if they would double summer youth employment, from 5,000 to 10,000 jobs, all the candidates said yes, including Rawlings-Blake, who cut 2,000 jobs from the program’s budget last year.
Asked if they would double funding for after-school programs to $10 million, all except Landers said they would. That included Rawlings-Blake, who, faced with a budget shortfall, cut that program last year, as well. Asked if they would commit to “creating 55 high-quality recreation centers,” all but Landers said “yes.”
The Brew reported that a task force created by Rawlings-Blake concludes (in a report finished last December but only recently released) that the city’s 55 rec centers are too old and dilapidated and should be replaced by fewer and bigger facilities.
The panel and a related city report calls for building three new rec centers and expanding 11 others, while spinning off at least 28 centers to other entities – and permanently closing as many as 10 rec centers.
“The Same Things We’ve Been Doing”
When it came time for closing statements, Rawlings-Blake offered a stay-the-course message that seemed odd amid a roomful of people calling for change at the top of their lungs. And yet, what else does an incumbent do?
“Now is not the time for unrealistic plans or reckless actions,” she said from prepared notes. “Now is the time to move Baltimore forward, and we are moving it forward by doing the same things we’ve been doing: making tough choices, working hard and telling the truth.”