Reviewing gains and goals

Urban Chronicle

Inaugural: Mayor Martin O'Malley looks back at his first term and ahead to his second.

December 09, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A NEW POLITICAL term offers an opportunity to look ahead -- and glance backward.

That's what Mayor Martin O'Malley did, in broad strokes, in his inaugural speech for a second term Tuesday.

And that's what the mayor, accompanied by CitiStat director Matthew D. Gallagher, did over lunch last week at a table dubbed "O'Malley's Corner" at the James Joyce Restaurant & Pub.

The springboard for the discussion was a PowerPoint presentation developed by Gallagher that looks at the progress the city made during the mayor's first term in meeting the recommendations developed by several local business groups before O'Malley took office in 1999.

To O'Malley, the point of the presentation isn't simply to toot his administration's horn -- though it certainly does that, and fairly loudly. Rather, it is to cement the city's credibility with the business community, the legislature and, most important, the public.

"You have to keep driving into people that we're actually doing what we set out to do," the mayor said. "In essence, what we've been able to do is implement changes and reforms in city government that allows us to improve the services for the people who are paying for them."

Some of the points in the presentation have been made so often by the mayor and his minions that they have become a mantra. One is the 40 percent reduction in the city's violent crime. Even so, there are on average about 30 violent incidents reported daily in the city and a stubbornly high homicide figure; O'Malley acknowledges that crime is "my biggest accomplishment and biggest frustration."

Other points have been mentioned and forgotten, or never fully quantified and publicized. For example, the presentation highlights annual savings of $30 million by having employees and retirees pay a greater share of the cost of their health benefits and $3 million for privatizing custodial services.

Not all the savings detailed came on the backs of workers. The presentation mentions $2 million a year in savings from reductions in the number of city-owned vehicles. And, to be fair, not all the savings outlined were the results of administration actions. The mentioned $3 million to $4 million in savings that will be realized from eliminating the housing authority police and giving the Police Department responsibility for safety in public housing complexes came about because of federal cuts, not city belt-tightening.

Still, the scope of the savings is impressive -- as are increases totaling $14 million a year from increased fees in such areas as parking, emergency medical services and housing and health inspections.

"Some people think we did this to be clever," the mayor said. "We did it to survive.

"Yes, we raised some taxes," he added. "What we raised in savings greatly eclipsed what we raised in taxes."

The savings, O'Malley said, "allowed us to do things to bring back the quality of life in the city." The city has been able to increase its funding of the Police Department 25 percent over the past five years, while boosting its borrowing capacity for construction projects by 33 percent.

The presentation notes an uptick in employment in the city this year, and the leveling off of the population after decades of decline. It makes no mention of increased private investment, which the mayor put at $6 billion in his inaugural speech. "I really thought I would not see in my time as mayor the reinvestment in the city we're starting to see," he said.

Fostering that development and managing the city is a "challenge every day," he said, but added, "With regards to our operations of city government, I think we have a system down."

Looking ahead, O'Malley said he would like to see the same systems put in place for human services and city schools -- even though the former is an array of agencies, some under state control, and the latter is a city-state partnership. Acknowledging limited influence over some operations, O'Malley said, "I think we can become advocates and point the way to meaningful reform."

And he suggested two immediate plans.

One is an expansion of a program spearheaded by his health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, that provides intensive intervention for about 100 juveniles who have had at least two drug arrests by their 14th birthdays. O'Malley said there are 500 to 600 kids in the city who fit that category. "That's not an impossibly high number" to work with, he said.

The other is for the city to assume the management of 184 school buildings -- an idea he said he has broached with school officials.

"I'd like better buildings," the mayor said. "There are some things we've learned to do well. That's one of them."

He suggested terms -- a contract with an option to renew, funded by the school system's maintenance and capital budget -- and a speedy timetable.

"It would be nice to have something before the start of the [General Assembly] session" next month, he said.

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