Delivering her first State of the City address yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon proposed broad changes to the Police Department, speedier redevelopment of vacant land and the creation of several new positions to put disparate city agencies on the same page.
Speaking in the recently refurbished City Council chamber, where her newly minted Cabinet sat alongside top elected officials, Dixon also vowed a "significant" increase in arts funding, more staff at recreation centers and a study of property taxes - a response to escalating assessments.
Dixon became Baltimore's 48th mayor last month when her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, became governor. She has promised to maintain consistency with the prior administration as she serves its remaining 10 months, but she unveiled a surprising number of new initiatives last night - including some long shunned by O'Malley.
Though there were few specifics in the 40-minute speech about how to pay for the ideas, Dixon comes to the mayor's office at a time when city finances are in good shape - a potential benefit to her political fortunes. Rising property values have improved revenues, and city leaders have managed to fund new initiatives while also making modest cuts to the property tax rate.
Dixon devoted the lengthiest segment of her speech to crime, vowing to create a new division in the Police Department to target at-risk juveniles before they get into serious trouble. That effort follows a push away from the zero-tolerance policies of O'Malley's administration toward a more preventive, community-based approach.
"We have to get back to the days when officers knew the people who lived in the communities they patrolled, and the people in the community knew and trusted the officers that worked in their neighborhood," Dixon said. "Making our communities safer will take citizens and the police working together - not against each other."
With 30 homicides in Baltimore so far in 2007, crime, and how to confront it after O'Malley's tenure, will play a pivotal role in this year's mayoral election. Dixon, who is seeking election to a full term and will face at least a half-dozen candidates in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, argues the city must offer more health and job training services in high-crime areas.
Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said residents should expect to see more programs such as the "Get Out of the Game" initiative, in which officers approach young people caught up in drug-dealing in an attempt to link them with job placement or treatment.
"One of the things we had to do as a police agency was become multidimensional again," Hamm said at an unusual, impromptu news conference held in the mayor's office after the speech. "I believe, and the mayor believes, that you cannot just enforce, enforce, enforce without providing some hope for the community."
As City Council president, Dixon criticized O'Malley's Project 5000 program, which acquires blighted property and turns it over to developers. Dixon said the city can do a better job selling those lots, and she renewed calls yesterday for a land bank. A land bank, which would initially be part of the housing department, would oversee, maintain and sell city-owned land.
Land banks have been used in cities and states across the country to cut through the bureaucracy faced by agencies that are not equipped to market property once they own it.
The Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, for instance, sells property at market rate or gives it away, if the developer promises to use it for affordable housing. "It allows the process to move more freely," said the authority's executive director, Semone M. James.
On education, Dixon renewed her promise to create an assistant deputy mayor to advise her administration and to act as a liaison among the several agencies that oversee city schools.
"I will not accept that our children cannot learn. I will not accept that our children do not deserve every opportunity to succeed," she said. "And I believe all of us have a role to play in making our school system a leader in the state and in the nation again."
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running against Dixon for mayor, argued that the position will not fix the underlying problem of the city-state partnership used to manage schools. Under the arrangement, the governor and mayor jointly appoint members of the school board.
Mitchell favors the city reassuming complete authority over its schools.
"Creating a deputy mayor, to me, is just creating another layer of bureaucracy," Mitchell said. "The real hard decisions need to be made in terms of reclaiming our schools, taking back control."
Dixon promised to increase arts funding, but did not say by how much, and vowed to improve staffing at recreation centers. Dixon also said she would set aside about 75 Section 8 housing vouchers to relocate families whose children have been exposed to high levels of lead in contaminated homes.