For winners, city's issues to broaden

Baltimore Votes

September 09, 2007|By John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy | John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporters

For months, Baltimore's top Democrats have focused almost exclusively on crime and education in their bids for citywide office. But whoever wins in Tuesday's primary election will face four years of other daunting problems -- including many that have barely registered during the campaign.

Bumpy roads and leaky sewers. Persistent pockets of poverty and neighborhoods riddled with abandoned homes. An increasingly clogged transportation system and a regional competition to attract relocating military workers. Whether to back slots and, if so, where. The job, to put it mildly, will not be easy.

"Whoever is elected after Tuesday is going to have to continue the momentum and progress that Baltimore has been fortunate to have achieved over the last five to six years," said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "What's critically important is having the political will to make tough decisions."

Seven Democrats are running for mayor, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Del. Jill P. Carter and schools administrator Andrey Bundley. Four are running for president of the City Council, including the incumbent, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, community activist Michael Sarbanes and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

Assuming the Democratic nominees win in November's general election -- a near-certainty in a city with an overwhelmingly Democratic voter registration -- they will face tough decisions almost from the moment they are sworn in this December.

Early stages of the annual budget process begin at the end of this year. The city's $2.65 billion budget -- for years buoyed by real estate taxes in strengthening neighborhoods -- is showing signs of weakness. Belt-tightening at the state level, meanwhile, is likely to translate into less money flowing in from Annapolis for local programs.

And as officials wrestle with less revenue from real estate taxes and the state government, they are also under pressure to cut the property tax -- the city's largest source of revenue -- because the rate is higher than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. Less tax revenue will make it harder for the city to pay for everything from police to park maintenance, but keeping the rate high could stunt development.

The city's tax rate is $2.268 per $100 of assessed value. The next highest rate, in Baltimore County, is $1.10 per $100 of value.

John T. Willis, a senior executive in residence at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said one of the most pressing issues in Baltimore and other urban centers is expanding the local economy and the tax base.

"What hasn't received a lot of attention, [and] which is imperative for any local government, is how do we improve our job opportunities and our tax base," Willis said. "Part of the decline of the American city has been the relative decline of its incoming wealth compared to its neighbors."

Recent polls for The Sun have indicated that residents feel crime is the most pressing issue facing Baltimore -- and the leading candidates have spent much of the summer campaign debating whether to confront violence with a big increase in police officers or a more community-friendly approach. But residents often offer entirely different ideas for dealing with crime, such as better street lighting and home ownership programs.

"Every last one of them have to give the residents of Baltimore a reason to stay here," Mary M. Hughes, a member of the Panway Neighborhood Improvement Association in Northwest Baltimore, said of the candidates. "I think people just want to feel like, `Hey, this is not a bad place to live in.' And I don't think that feeling is here right now."

Increasingly, whatever happens to crime in Baltimore extends into the suburbs. Last week, Baltimore County police said that the shooting of a man in front of his Rosedale home in July was ordered to silence his testimony in a pending city homicide trial.

And while the candidates have largely focused on challenges above ground, one of the biggest issues facing Baltimore runs out of sight, underground. Like other East Coast cities, Baltimore must deal with a dilapidated sewer system. Local governments across the country are borrowing billions to make federally required repairs to reduce the amount of sewage leaking into streams.

Overall, the city's sewer system serves about 1.6 million customers and the water system serves about 1.8 million. Baltimore has consistently increased its sewer and water fees -- which also affects suburban consumers tied into the city's system -- for more than a decade and has spent about one-third of the $1 billion it expects will be needed to upgrade the system by 2016.

Those repairs, which are already under way, will ultimately help reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But in the meantime, they can tear through neighborhoods, rip up sidewalks and streets, clog traffic and limit parking.

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