1. The Daily Record has published a number of articles this year about the $1.8 billion redevelopment of Middle East by East Baltimore Development Inc. How would you rate the EBDI development so far in terms of public accountability, financial transparency and economic impact? How do you see its impact on the city’s future?
The investigative series of articles published in The Daily Record, by Melody Simmons and Joan Jacobson, did an excellent job of highlighting the deficiencies and the lack of transparency in the EBDI project. I would not rate the organization very high, as far as accountability and transparency are concerned. I would make certain that EBDI and all publicly funded/supported economic development entities are held accountable and maintain a high degree of transparency in the conduct of the organizations’ business. Frankly, it is difficult to determine the full extent of the economic impact of the EBDI development, partly because of the lack of transparency and partly because of conditions affecting the overall economy and housing market. It may take years to actually see the full benefit and impact of this development on the east side communities surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy-Krieger Institute. For all of the public dollars that have been put into this project to date, it appears that the return on the investment has been relatively low.
2. Describe your plan to lower the city’s residential property tax rate.
My goal is to reduce the property tax rate for all property in the city by 25 to 35 percent over the next four to six years. All of the tax plans put forth by other mayoral candidates have focused solely on owner-occupied residential property, and completely omit investment and commercial properties. We need to reduce the tax rate for all classes of property in order to attract residents and businesses back into the city.
I would revamp the city property tax structure and model it after the property tax system in Washington, D.C., which permits different tax rates to be applied to different categories of property. In Washington, inhabited residential properties pay the lowest property tax rate, less than 1 percent. The second category, commercial property, pays between 1.65 and 1.85 percent. The third category comprises properties that have been vacant for more than a year and are not being actively marketed, which would be taxed at 5 percent. Blighted properties make up the fourth tax category, and these properties would pay a tax rate of 10 percent. This property tax structure will create an incentive for property owners to invest in their property or sell it. The other important component of my tax reform platform involves the establishment of a land bank in Baltimore tied to razing and redeveloping a large number of the vacant properties in the city.
3. With property tax revenues declining and many federal programs likely on the chopping block, how will you overhaul the city budget to reflect new funding realities?
We have to fundamentally change the way the city conducts its business. I will look at all agencies and programs to see where we can streamline services and save money, so that funds can be applied to priority programs. I will seriously look at the city’s office and space needs with an eye toward consolidating offices and reducing costs. Properties no longer needed will be sold and put back on the tax rolls. I believe significant savings can be achieved by contracting for fleet management services as most major companies have done.
The number of positions connected with the mayor’s office and the number of deputies in the various agencies has exploded over the past couple of decades. I will begin implementing spending reductions by cutting the number of staff in the mayor’s office by 20 percent.
We need to approach certain large-scale development projects from a regional perspective rather than having the city foot the financial burden alone. Projects such as the proposed new arena and State Center, which benefit the entire region by creating and retaining jobs, should be supported regionally. I would also open up a dialogue with the surrounding counties to determine if there are ways that we might collaborate to reduce costs on the procurement of goods and services.
4. With the city’s unemployment rate more than 10 percent, what will you do to provide jobs and stimulate economic development?
I would strengthen the local hiring preferences in all city contracts for both goods and services to promote job growth in the city. Reducing the property tax rate and making the city safer will greatly help attract business and jobs.
Based on my response for question 5, I believe that pursuing a more aggressive approach to addressing the vacant and abandoned houses in the city will open up opportunities to add job training and local hiring stipulations as part of our redevelopment and housing rehabilitation initiatives undertaken by the land bank.
I am also committed to full implementation of the hiring and training recommendations articulated in the Community Compact agreement with respect to the construction of the Red Line. The city must do a better job of coordinating with the MTA to make it easier for city residents to get to and from job locations.
5. The 2010 Census found there are 47,000 vacant dwellings in Baltimore. How will you address this issue?
I would act promptly to establish a land bank in Baltimore. It would be wholly owned by the city and would be instrumental in reforming the entire tax sale process. The land bank would have the responsibility for assembling, stabilizing, managing and redeveloping city-owned and tax delinquent properties. The primary purpose for redeveloping vacant property is to increase and enhance the tax base and improve living conditions in neighborhoods. This may take the form of new housing, a shopping area, a park or greenway, a community play area or an urban farm. The large number of vacant properties is a serious problem, but it also presents a tremendous opportunity to add green space and public amenities to neighborhoods for the purpose of growing the tax base.
I will also work with local business leaders to implement and promote home-buying incentives for employees. My goal will be to involve every major employer in the city with efforts to promote city living and to [provide] their employees with incentives for buying homes in the city. Increasing demand for homes will help to stimulate new construction and the rehabilitation of housing.
I will work with lenders, the State CDA program and some large foundations in the city to expand the pool of financing available to investors and home owners to help facilitate the sale and reuse of vacant properties.