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Q&A: Otis Rolley

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?

When it comes to the redevelopment of East Baltimore, I share the sentiment of many Baltimoreans — disappointment in the disparity between what the project promised and what has been delivered. The city has invested more than $200 million in a project that has done little for jobs or housing, limiting the city’s return on its investment. Though we saw many development projects stall or stagnate during the recession, failure is not an option for any area of the city, especially one that has been as neglected as the neighborhoods in and around Johns Hopkins Medical. As mayor, I would demand answers from East Baltimore Development Inc. Though EBDI isn’t subject to auditing or city oversight, as a recipient of generous TIF bonds, I would work with City Council members to pressure EBDI into compliance for monies already expended and would place as a condition of any future monies, specific reporting requirements. Without development, Baltimore can’t recover the nearly $80 million we’ve expended to EBDI. We need to have EBDI commit to compliance through audits and detailed reports or a return of our investment including interest.

2.  Describe your plan to lower the city’s residential property tax rate.

My plan will provide a significant tax cut for every residential property owner in the city, and more than 50 percent for most homeowners. Residential properties will be taxed 1.1 percent on the first $200,000 of assessed value and 1.75 percent on value above $200,000. Negligent property owners and landlords would see their taxes rise to 5 percent for blighted vacant land and 10 percent for vacant structures. My plan maintains approximately 75 percent of the city’s real property tax revenue before any increased taxes and fees for vacant or blighted properties or additional revenues from a growth in population or property values. In year three of the plan, property taxes would be reduced for all Baltimore homeowners. The rate would fall by 0.146 every year for eight years. In 10 years, my plan will provide $2,336 in property tax savings on a $200,000 home, whereas the mayor’s plan would save the same homeowner only $40 by 2013 and only $400 in 10 years time.

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?

The first thing I will do is something that rarely happens in Baltimore: I will hold government managers accountable for results. In my very first policy paper of the campaign, I proposed a real plan to rebuild — not reform, but rebuild — government to create real goals and timelines for decision making, hold managers accountable for their performance and increase transparency in government.

There are those, like the current mayor, who argue that the current government has no “bloat” and that property taxes cannot be substantially cut and still fund critical services. But they are wrong — we cannot continue operating with little accountability for results the way we have been and reduce property taxes.

I will eliminate duplicative roles, including the deputy mayor structure, increase competition for contracts, mandate the city competitively bid all professional services contracts of $25,000 and above, coordinate purchasing across government and provide financial incentives to workers for proposing reforms or cost savings. Workers will be eligible to receive a bonus of up to 10 percent of the cost savings generated by their ideas up to $5,000.

4.  With the city’s unemployment rate at more than 10 percent, what will you do to provide jobs and stimulate economic development?

Baltimore hasn’t had a coherent economic development plan in over 30 years and when there are opportunities to create jobs for city residents — as with the proposed slots development — the current mayor has sided with developers over workers and neighborhoods. I simply cannot understand her decision to reduce minority requirements for that development, but it is consistent with her larger pattern of supporting her contributors, not residents.

As mayor, I will reform our economic development agency, which has operated more like a real estate development agency. Through capital investments, we have bet the proverbial farm on real estate development and tourism, neither of which can provide the revenue needed to move Baltimore’s economy forward. We have been reactionary to the whims of the real estate market and specific development projects, not an overall citywide strategy.

As mayor, I will implement a 21st-century economic strategy that focuses on seven key industrial sectors: health and human services; computers, Internet, data and software services; bioscience and biotechnology; port and port-related services; green manufacturing; real estate development and construction; and tourism. Of special focus will be supporting businesses in neighborhoods, entrepreneurship, small and startup businesses, and those owned and operated by minorities and women.

5. The 2010 Census found there are 47,000 vacant dwellings in Baltimore. How will you address this issue?

There are many causes and consequences of the blight that scars our neighborhoods, but there are just a few things that need to be done to begin to fix this problem. As mayor, I will:

  • Lower taxes for every homeowner, with most receiving cuts of more than 50 percent;
  • Target negligent and absentee landlord and property owners with higher taxes and fines to reduce blight;
  • Increase code enforcement through the Department of Housing and Community Development; and
  • Reform the city’s system for handling the properties it owns to transfer control of — and responsibility for — these properties as part of an overall and neighborhood development strategy.

Under my plan, negligent property owners would receive one year’s notice to address problem properties before new, higher rates and fees kick in. By cleaning and maintaining a vacant lot, owners would see an immediate tax cut.

No longer will quality homeowners be penalized while those who own blighted properties escape consequences. My plan is unique in that it isn’t structured in such a way as to compel development on open space that is privately owned. As a city planner, I believe open space in neighborhoods is important.

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