Down to business

The spoils of victory - an early work day

September 13, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Hours after the polls closed and the victory speeches were over, Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake came to City Hall, slightly bleary eyed, for a weekly, early-morning meeting where the nitty-gritty of the city's business gets done.

Entering the room to applause yesterday, they took their seats on the Board of Estimates and began to approve items on a 117-page agenda, including a tax break for the proposed Legg Mason headquarters and a plan to provide backup power for an emergency communications antenna on top of the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

"I'm going to put every ounce of what I have inside of me into this job," Dixon said later at a news conference that drew members of her senior staff. "I've made a commitment ... to work with every neighborhood in this city to continue to strengthen where we're weak and to continue to build where we're strong."

A day after city voters in the Democratic primary election chose to keep Dixon and Rawlings-Blake in place -- a move that put black women into the city's four most-prominent elected positions -- the two got started on a four-year term that could prove to be among the most challenging periods in Baltimore's history.

After a summer-long race that focused largely on crime and education, Dixon defeated City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and five other candidates. Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, beat community activist Michael Sarbanes in a race that many predicted would be close but that was apparently decided by more than 8,600 votes, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.

Dixon and Rawlings-Blake face challenges in the Nov. 6 general election. Technically, they are just the Democratic nominees. But given that nearly 80 percent of voters in Baltimore are registered as Democrats -- the last time the city elected a Republican mayor was in 1963 -- the general election challengers face an uphill battle.

One of the most important decisions Dixon's administration will make is to choose a police commissioner. Frederick H. Bealefeld III has been acting commissioner since Dixon asked his predecessor, Leonard D. Hamm, to step down in July. Dixon said yesterday that she will select a commissioner soon, but she did not offer a timeline.

Baltimore has had about a 12 percent increase in homicides over the same period last year, and violent crime became a major issue during the mayoral campaign.

Dixon, who received about 63 percent of the vote Tuesday, said that all department heads -- many of whom are from Gov. Martin O'Malley's mayoral administration -- must interview for their positions. She said that in some cases, she will also be interviewing other candidates for the jobs.

"There will be some changes," Dixon said when asked yesterday about her Cabinet. "Where and who, I'm not going to discuss that now, but everyone will interview for their jobs. I'm expecting a lot."

The administration is also expected to make news on a plan to reduce property taxes -- which are higher in Baltimore than any other jurisdiction in the state. Dixon convened a panel in February to study ways to reduce the property tax rate -- which is the single-largest source of revenue for the city -- and that group is expected to present a report to the mayor this month.

Dixon aides have said the administration hopes to reduce the property tax rate by 25 percent. It is not known how quickly that reduction would come or what other taxes or fees might be increased to offset the loss of revenue from a property tax reduction.

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. Some believe that because Baltimore's tax rate is so much higher than surrounding jurisdictions, it discourages families and businesses from locating in city.

"We're going to give the mayor and the council some recommendations that, if adopted, could reduce the tax rate at a more rapid pace," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former councilman, who co-chairs the panel. "We're in a good position, but this is not going to happen without a clear strategy and a clear plan."

Dixon also reiterated a plan she has talked about for several months to develop a land bank, a concept that has been used by other cities and states to sell government-owned vacant property. Generally, the arrangement allows for an independent organization, such as a nonprofit group, to buy, maintain and sell property.

She also talked about stepping up efforts by the city's housing department to develop neighborhoods such as Oliver and Poppleton.

Donald F. Norris, professor and chair of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Dixon has considerably more power now that she is no longer staring down the barrel of this year's election.

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