Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings- Blake is shown as she… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Citing numerous examples of waste and mismanagement, a citizens group appointed to analyze city services recommended that Baltimore study privatizing trash collection, create a program to quickly dispose of vacant houses and consider extracting property taxes from nonprofits such as hospitals and schools.
The 150-member transition committee, selected by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to advise her as she took the reins of city government, blasts the Department of Housing and Community Development in particular, saying it "appears to lack a clear and coherent vision for revitalizing ... neighborhoods."
Additionally, it criticizes the department's management of the Head Start program and charges that the department sits on funding for development projects, creating "significant delays."
The committee also levied harsh words at the Department of Recreation and Parks, condemning it as "crippled and without direction," and deploring a "lack of transparency" in the agency's capital budget.
The members of the transition team, appointed shortly before Rawlings-Blake took office Feb. 4, spent weeks meeting with agency heads and employees to draft their recommendations.
Their analysis exposes numerous examples of redundancy, including one city-owned building shared by four government-sponsored programs, each of which uses a different cleaning service.
The report comes as Rawlings-Blake prepares to present a dire preliminary budget Wednesday that includes profound cuts to city services to make up for a $121 million deficit.
"It's a critical time for me to have independent advice from community and business leaders," Rawlings-Blake said.
The mayor's budget includes several of the transition team's recommendations, according to those who have been briefed on it.
The report suggests numerous ways for the city to raise revenue, including a tax on bottles and other containers, raising hotel taxes and levying property taxes on nonprofits.
The team urges the city to assess how to best use its 10 million square feet of city-owned office and industrial space, which is spread across 527 separate facilities. It suggests the city should consider relocating some agencies, such as the Law Department, which is in the basement of City Hall where employees suffer "flooding, mold, vermin, odors and temperature issues."
The city could potentially save money through outsourcing garbage collection and recycling to private contractors. And it should study the economic ramifications of the current system of take-home vehicles, according to the report.
Some of the team's most trenchant criticism is directed at the Housing Department, which, according to the report, "is out of balance" because "its predominant focus on housing projects rather than neighborhood development and community building."
The Community Development and Neighborhoods subcommittee spent many of their meetings discussing the department, which the members felt was lacking in "grass roots community development," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a committee member.
But Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano called that charge, "absurd." The department has a "very, very clear, very complicated, multipronged strategy," for dealing with community development.
He also disputed the report's recommendation that the Head Start program should be transferred to another agency "that is more closely allied with educational outcomes."
Graziano said that program belonged in Housing, because it not only focuses on education but also takes a "holistic approach," helping families of young children with nutrition and health care.
The report refers in veiled terms to a land bank, a key initiative of former Mayor Sheila Dixon, that was recently withdrawn from a City Council committee by Rawlings-Blake's administration. The city must expeditiously draft a program "to manage and dispose" of the 30,0000 vacant properties scattered throughout the city and to streamline the management of the 10,000 vacant properties owned by the city into one agency, according to the report.
Graziano said Rawlings-Blake had spoken with him about "implementing a more immediate solution" to the problem through existing agencies.
The report calls on the Housing Department to take "a more pro-active approach to subsidizing development projects" since the agency "is often the last actor to commit public subsidies to a development project, resulting in significant delays."
But Graziano defended the agency, saying that it must wait until a project appears feasible - and has received other funding - before "tying up scarce subsidy dollars."
Transition team members also called for broad changes at the Recreation and Parks department, which they said was suffering, "a crisis of direction and sustainability."