Letter from the mayor: Laslo, here’s your yardstick

[Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this letter incorrectly stated the Mayor’s priorites. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that violence on Baltimore’s streets is her “No. 1 focus,” not No. 2.]

The column “Why strong mayors are important” by Laslo Boyd (Nov. 12) missed an opportunity to highlight how Baltimore is setting standards other big cities are looking to emulate. Baltimore has won national acclaim under my administration as it relates to blight elimination, budget reform and educational investments, to name a few.

The author writes that it’s hard to find “the right yardstick” to evaluate Baltimore under my leadership, citing “well-placed observers.” Had the author talked to any one of the more than 3,000 Baltimore residents I’ve spoken with in recent weeks through community meetings and telephone town halls, he would know that Baltimoreans are crystal clear about the focus of my administration.

Those are the voices I listen to and take my marching orders from — not “well-placed observers.”

Baltimoreans want a safer city. Violence on Baltimore’s streets keeps me up at night. It’s my No. 1 focus as mayor, and I will not rest until our streets are rid of the most violent repeat offenders.

We recently highlighted our 1,000th gun arrest. Our police have taken more than 1,800 illegal guns off the streets this year. We continue to deploy coordinated tactics to rid city streets of gangs and the drug markets they enable. I realize that there is much more work to do and have ordered a strategic review of our police department so that Baltimore city can continue crafting an effective crime strategy.

Being aggressive in the crime fight is central to growing Baltimore by 10,000 families and enhancing the quality of life for Baltimoreans who have called our city home for decades.

In order to do so, I recognize that we must also continue our efforts to remove blight.

On the day before his column was published, I wish the author had watched the evening news. If he had, perhaps he would have heard the story of Cynite Cooke. I stood with Ms. Cooke on the steps of a formerly vacant property that is currently being rehabilitated thanks to my administration’s Vacants to Value initiative. Her story was a part of the third- year anniversary celebration of this Baltimore-based program that has won national accolades from the White House and the Clinton Global Initiative, among others. Vacants to Value recently gained international acclaim after being named a Financial Times’ Citi Ingenuity Award North American semifinalist for an original idea that has made life better for people living and working in cities.

Ms. Cooke moved to Baltimore to serve our school system. After working here as a teacher for a few years, she decided to put down roots in the city by taking advantage of the numerous homeownership incentives my administration has put in place. While her heart has been in Baltimore for years, she decided to make her home here.

Stories like hers are happening all across Baltimore and are exactly how we will grow our city one resident at a time. Vacants to Value is the most successful blight elimination effort of any Baltimore administration to date. In just three years, the initiative has helped rehabilitate 1,400 vacant properties and demolish 700 dilapidated structures. Plans are in the works for 4,000 more demolitions in the next decade.

Safer streets and stronger neighborhoods need a world-class education system in order to support the goal of growing our city. Before this year, Baltimore had tried in vain to secure significant funding from the state to dramatically improve our school system. Through the bottle tax, my administration took the first step in putting together a legislative package that secured over $1 billion in school reconstruction funds. In an op-ed I penned for the Baltimore Sun, I reiterated the same message my administration has provided privately to stakeholders, which is that our next schools CEO should have strong managerial and classroom experience, as well as be a committed partner in my efforts to reduce truancy in city schools.

The city now has its first financial plan to tackle a $750 million structural deficit in a decade. In just one year, my administration is already implementing policies that will eliminate more than half of this deficit. Numerous studies have cited Baltimore as a model for municipal budgeting, placing us in the same league of other iconic American cities such as New York, further setting Baltimore apart in our successful efforts to reduce property taxes and avoid across-the-board budget cuts during very difficult financial times.

Working hard in those areas are how we will achieve my goal of growing Baltimore. These policies are just a few of the accomplishments to back up my mantra of a Baltimore that is “Better, Safer and Stronger.”

For me, it’s not about being the flashiest mayor. I’d rather be a leader who listens to her city and pushes the limits of what was previously thought to be impossible for Baltimore. We aren’t where I know we can be just yet, but our continued focus on reducing crime, making historic investments in education and refusing to avoid the hard choices when it comes to our budget are what currently set Baltimore apart from many other big cities in America.

In the end, that’s the only yardstick that matters to the residents I serve every day.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Mayor of Baltimore

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