Rawlings-Blake marks 100 days as Baltimore mayor

From blizzards to budget, a hectic pace from the start

May 14, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake probably can't turn on the radio or TV without hearing attacks on taxes she has proposed to help close the largest budget gap in decades.

On top of that, the Baltimore mayor will somehow have to find an extra $65 million if the public safety pension plan is not changed in the next seven weeks, even as hundreds of police officers and firefighters are threatening to retire, quit or sue if it is altered.

And let's not forget the pair of historic blizzards that paralyzed the city during her first week in office, or how she was rushed to the hospital with chest pains one month later.

Rawlings-Blake had dreamed of leading the city of Baltimore since she was a young girl. But Friday, as she marked her 100th day as mayor, there's an old adage that comes to mind: Be careful what you wish for.

Although there have been triumphs — steps toward ethics reform, record Census participation, bids to bring Google Fiber and Indy racing to the city — it's hard to imagine a more stressful first hundred days for a mayor.

But Rawlings-Blake says that there's still nothing she would rather be doing. And in fact, after being appointed to fill the mayor's office after Sheila Dixon's resignation, she has her eye on the future — she plans to run for mayor next year.

"My interest in public service is not just for when times are good," Rawlings-Blake said. "Just because we're in challenging times doesn't mean I love it any less. This is what I've dreamed of doing my whole life. I feel very fortunate to be able to have an impact on the city and the communities that I love."

Budget woes loom large

While 100 days represents an arbitrary guidepost, a much more critical deadline looms for Rawlings-Blake — June 30, the end of the fiscal year. By that date, she must push a budget plan through the City Council and hammer out a pension deal with the police and fire unions or risk financial disaster. It will prove as much a test of her leadership skills as her ability to compromise.

Rawlings-Blake has accomplished many of her initial goals. She has acted on some of the recommendations put forth by her 150-member volunteer transition team, such as appointing a permanent recreation and parks director and starting a national search for a health commissioner.

Although some residents grumbled about the city's response to the back-to-back blizzards, most agree that Rawlings-Blake, confronted with the unprecedented storms immediately after taking office, headed off potential crisis with graceful and confident leadership. And she bounced back from a health scare quickly as well — going from Shock Trauma to City Hall within hours after suffering what she called gastric issues caused by too much coffee. Rawlings-Blake even used the moment as a public services announcement, reminding women not to neglect their health.

She has made strides in reforming the city's ethics laws — an issue brought to the forefront during the criminal trial that ultimately cost Dixon her job. Rawlings-Blake signed into law a pair of bills that limit the mayor's influence on the ethics board and clarify the definition of those doing business with the city.

"The new laws are certainly an improvement, never perfect, but a big step forward," said Julian L. Lapides, who sits on the state ethics commission and is a former city ethics board member.

Steady or disengaged?

Reaction to Rawlings-Blake's first three months spans a wide range. Some praise her steady, low-key manner and the decisiveness with which she has attacked the budget, while others say she seems disengaged from negotiations over the city's most contentious issues.

Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union, said he is troubled that the administration has asked the council to take the lead on the pension crisis. Rawlings-Blake's staffers are largely absent from pension negotiations, he said.

"During the mayor's state of the city [speech], it was an important enough issue that she referred to it as a 'ticking time bomb,' " he said. "But when it comes time to sit at the table and solve it, the mayor and her staff throw their hands up. They're missing in action. And you can't solve problems by ignoring them."

Rawlings-Blake said she and her staff have had "many conversations" with public safety leaders but have not yet reached a consensus.

She also has drawn mixed reactions for how she has tackled a $121 million hole in the city's $2.2 billion budget.

Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group, lauded Rawlings-Blake's approach to closing the deficit through $70 million in cuts and a $50 million array of new taxes, which include a $350 tariff on hospital and university beds and a four-cent tax on bottled beverages.

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