Four candidates vying for the city's vacant 9th District City Council seat were grilled on topics including property tax increases, deficits and how they would plan to spend their freshman year on the panel at a packed hearing Tuesday night.
City council members must choose a replacement for Agnes Welch, who retired last month. The candidates are John T. Bullock, a political science professor, Abigail Breiseth, 42, a city schools teacher who helped found the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Welch's son William A. "Pete" Welch, 57, a certified public accountant, and Michael E. Johnson, 55, who ran against Agnes Welch in 2007 and is the executive director of the Paul Robeson Institute.
Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University, said he is most concerned with "the glut of abandoned housing," saying that the city needs to take a more "creative approach" to dealing with these properties. He said he wants to find new ways to attract businesses and residents back to the city.
When asked by council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger III about the budget, Bullock praised the bottle tax and proposed other taxes, such as tickets to attractions and parking, instead of increasing property taxes when Councilman Bill Henry asked about how he would maintain services but not increase property taxes.
He said he'd support a "commuter tax" for those who come to work or play in the city.
And when asked how he would spend his first year, he said he would focus on "political education," saying that voter turnout is low and that many residents don't feel connected to city hall.
Welch, too, said vacant properties would be a top priority, and that he would propose a "vacant to value" program to make it easier for residents to purchase vacant homes to rehabilitate, while encouraging a "move back to Baltimore program" to encourage people to return to the city.
Councilman James B. Kraft asked Welch to explain his past criminal charges. In 2000, Welch pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and gun violations for firing a pistol to disperse a group of angry poll workers demanding promised payments
He said "the gun misfired into the floor" and that he decided on a plea rather than fight the case because of court costs.
He later pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges in 2004 for failing to file campaign finance reports.
In both instances, Welch said, he took the plea, saying that legal fees, which he could not have afforded, would have outweighed the fine.
He disagreed with the other candidates and the council on a local living-wage bill, saying that it would be ineffective. "New businesses will go elsewhere," he said. Welch also disagreed with increasing property taxes, saying, "Property tax can't go up. No one is going to move here."
If elected, Welch told the council, his main focus next year would be to "rehabilitate the Poplar Grove corridor" in West Baltimore.
Breiseth, a teacher, consistently listed "schools, schools, schools" as her priority if she took office — specifically the way teacher pensions are funded and the lack of school construction. Teacher retention and attracting principals also need to be explored, she said.
When asked if she would support a "waiver of maintenance of effort" that would not require the city to spend as much on schools as it had last year, she said it "would be disastrous." She said the city has the money, but "do we have the political will to spend money on children?"
Johnson said his main focus would be improving the appearance of the 9th District. For instance, he said, places with burned-out street lights also tend to have more crime.
"We need to make it look more inviting," he said. But the biggest challenge for the district is unemployment, he said, saying that there has been no new development in the area for years.
"There hasn't been a crane in our district for four years," he said.
He said the council needs to be "more progressive," which caused an eruptions of applause in the balcony. When asked about how he would reconcile a deficit, he said there should be an audit of every city department to evaluate how funds are spent.
He too opposed a property tax increase, asking, "What are we really paying for?"