Mayor hails city's gains

O'Malley stresses progress on crime, education, economy

`Comeback is under way'

`All-out' war on drugs vowed in address on State of the City

January 29, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

In a speech marked by characteristic optimism and ambition, Mayor Martin O'Malley declared yesterday that "the state of our city is the strongest that it has been in over a decade." He then made an impassioned promise to attack drug addiction with "an all-out campaign for the very future of our city."

In his 40-minute address, O'Malley said the city has made progress in his first two years as mayor on crime, education and the economy. He noted a 23 percent drop in violent crime, an increase in school test scores, a $30,000 increase in average home sales price and positive job growth.

"Baltimore's comeback is under way," O'Malley said. "Our challenge, should we accept it, is to continue our march forward."

O'Malley made no mention of the city's homicide numbers, which, after a surge in killings in the last few months, didn't decline nearly as sharply last year as in the previous year. The mayor did not remind his audience of his 1999 campaign pledge to reduce homicides to 175 a year by 2002 -- a target that seems difficult to reach, because last year's total reached 259.

But he infused his speech with a grim assessment of some of the city's other problems and several new pledges to tackle them.

He called the city's high schools, with their high drop-out rates and crime problems, "an embarrassment," and highlighted the school system's effort to open innovative, smaller high schools beginning next school year. He called the city's 14,000 abandoned homes "dead capital," and urged law firms and title companies to help him in an effort to take title quickly to thousands of homes and "retake ownership of Baltimore."

He called drug addiction the city's "affliction" and "biggest challenge," promising that the city would overcome it. He described an advertising campaign, to be launched this spring, the first major step in a grass-roots anti-drug effort.

"This is the year we drive drugs out of our hearts, out of our minds and out of our veins," O'Malley said. "We have no choice but to fight, and we have no option but to succeed."

The mayor announced that the city has narrowed a projected budget gap of $24 million for this year to $8 million, with the help of stronger-than-expected tax revenues from tourism and home sales. Also helping, he said, were "ingenuity, guts and hard work" -- which might be euphemisms for aggressive monitoring of overtime and a stringent citywide hiring freeze imposed in the fall.

O'Malley also announced that by March, the city would establish a central telephone number for residents to call for city services.

The third annual State of the City address continued a tradition O'Malley started after his 1999 election. The City Council chamber was packed with members of the mayor's Cabinet and the city's top elected officials, including political foes such as State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.

O'Malley added a twist -- borrowing from State of the Union addresses -- by honoring "Baltimore heroes." He singled out:

Kevin and Tamra Brooks, a young couple who moved from Baltimore County into the city with their young children and have fought for their neighborhood.

Officer of the Year Ronald A. Beverly, who, though wounded by gunfire, helped in the capture and arrest March 12 of the man charged with killing his partner, Agent Michael J. Cowdery Jr.

Teacher of the Year Linda J. Eberhart's top-scoring fifth-grade math pupils at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School.

"These are the faces of the amazing trends that are making us the comeback city of America," O'Malley said.

After the speech, O'Malley aides offered few details on the coming anti-drug effort, which will be launched with the help of the Baltimore Police Foundation.

The nonprofit group's executive director, Olive Waxter, said in an interview yesterday that the foundation has hired Linder & Associates, a law enforcement consulting firm, to devise an advertising campaign.

The campaign, which Waxter said would be ready to air on television by the spring, will urge drug addicts to find drug treatment, ask residents to be vigilant and report drug activity, and try to boost the numbers of police recruits.

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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