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Q&A: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

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?

EBDI is an important project that has not yet realized its full potential due to the Great Recession of the last three years. I remain committed to driving the project forward to create new jobs, housing opportunities and further revitalization of Baltimore’s eastside. My administration will continue to demand accountability and transparency for all public/private economic development partnerships throughout the city.  In the long run, the project will have a significant impact on the city’s economic development future.

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

My administration has released a feasible, comprehensive property tax reduction plan. Our plan will target future property tax reductions to homeowners through a newly created homeowner’s tax credit program funded with revenue generated from the city’s future slots location and by responsibly reducing city spending over several years.

Under the proposal, an owner-occupied home in Baltimore assessed at $200,000 would see an annual tax reduction of $40 in 2013, growing to $400 by 2020. In order to target property tax reductions to Baltimore City homeowners, I will seek to create a new tax credit program that will allow the city to reduce the effective property tax rate for owner-occupied dwellings (homeowners).

My administration plans to introduce legislation during the next regular state legislative session to create the Targeted Homeowners Tax Credit Program. We will also submit companion legislation that defines the tax credit program to the City Council.  The new program uses the same eligibility criteria as the existing Homestead Property Tax Credit Program. All Baltimore City homeowners who currently qualify for the Homestead Property Tax Credit will qualify for this new credit.

Each year, the Mayor and City Council will use 90 percent of all city revenue generated from the city’s future Video Lottery Terminal and responsibly reducing city spending in future years to appropriate funds to the tax credit program.  Fiscal responsibility is a key component of our property tax relief plan for homeowners. Other proposals to drastically cut property tax rates would cripple services, including public safety, and would likely bankrupt the city.

By gradually reducing the city’s property tax rate and partially relying on new revenue from slots, the city will still have to make difficult budget choices, but will be able to adjust its spending plans and services in a responsible way. The 10-year Financial Plan Initiative will identify options for reducing the city’s structural budget deficit and creating a pro-growth tax structure.

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?

It’s going to be difficult. In my State of the City Address back in February, I talked about the need of local government to adapt to “the new normal,” the new economic reality that confronts us: slow growth in revenue and increasing fixed costs. That’s why I started a new financial plan initiative. The plan will help us create clear long-term budget priorities, improve cost-effective delivery of core city services, and help establish a pro-jobs and pro-growth tax structure for Baltimore’s future.

The plan will likely call for tough choices such as benefit changes for city employees and retirees, including some that we have already begun to implement. The plan could also include difficult consolidations of some city services. These choices cannot be ignored, and all options must be considered.

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

My top economic development priority is to do everything possible to create new job opportunities for city residents of all skill levels, to focus our efforts on industries with growth potential and to lay the foundation for Baltimore to be a leader in creating the new jobs of the 21st century.  I will use every economic development tool at my disposal to help spur job creation and new investment in our city.  If a business has a plan for a project that creates jobs and strengthens our neighborhoods, I will fight to make it happen.

In addition to strongly supporting job-creating redevelopment projects throughout the city, I have an open door policy with the business community to offer assistance, predictability and continued dialogue focused on job creation. During my short time in office we have supported several strategies to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents, including fully funding career centers so that all Baltimore residents have an opportunity to prepare for and find new employment; [and] increasing funding for the Emerging Technology Center to grow 27 new startup companies and create jobs for the future. To date, ETC companies have received over $1 billion in investment funding, have been issued nearly 200 patents and have created an estimated $270 million in economic activity for Baltimore.

I signed an executive order to encourage city contractors to hire Baltimoreans, and we employed over 5,000 young people this summer with the YouthWorks Summer Jobs Program, despite federal budget cuts. We are restructuring the Baltimore Development Corporation to focus on key growth sectors such as cyber security, healthcare IT, biotech and life sciences and small neighborhood businesses. My administration is working to successfully bring major events such as the Grand Prix to Baltimore to create jobs, support small businesses and promote tourism.

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

To help reduce the number of vacant properties in the city we announced “Vacants to Value.” The Vacants to Values program is one of the ways we’re making our neighborhoods stronger. Baltimore has suffered over 50 years of disinvestment — 16,000 vacant buildings — and there is no silver bullet that will eliminate our challenges. This plan is the first strategy for vacant houses that recognizes and respects market realities instead of working against them.

The plan seeks to drive reinvestment in neighborhoods by strengthening code enforcement efforts in transitional blocks and emerging markets to promote rehabilitation. A $900 citation forces owners to invest in their property or sell to someone who will. Vacants to Values is also streamlining the sale of vacant city property by cutting red tape, reducing transaction time and by providing new, targeted incentives for homebuyers and developers who invest in vacant homes. Vacants to Value has resulted in the sale of over 130 vacant houses and has reduced by two-thirds the time it takes to close a transaction with the city.

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