Despite an $81 million budget shortfall, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake trumpeted plans to start new projects in her election-year State of the City speech Monday, including efforts to boost jobs in new technology, crack down on perpetrators of domestic violence and reorganize the city's economic development arm.
"I'm choosing to head down the straight-talking, no-sugar-coating path toward change and progress for Baltimore," said Rawlings-Blake, who is facing at least half a dozen potential challengers in September's Democratic primary.
Rawlings-Blake, who became mayor after Sheila Dixon's resignation a year ago last week, warned of "tough choices" in the upcoming budget She also leveled thinly veiled barbs at competitors who have accused her of failing to chart a strong course for the city.
"A real vision for the city begins with treating the people of Baltimore with honesty and respect. If it sounds too good to be true, it isn't true," she said. "A city that lives on falsehood and false promises is a city that's dying."
In a dig at her challengers, Rawlings-Blake said that some "irresponsibly choose to ignore and mislead on these fundamental questions, especially when discussing property tax relief."
At least three of Rawlings-Blake's likely challengers — former city planning director Otis Rolley III, City Councilman Carl Stokes and Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers — have made lowering the city's property tax rate central to their campaigns.
Rawlings-Blake announced plans to streamline the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development arm, to focus on developing real estate, growing and keeping businesses, and nurturing commercial areas outside of downtown Baltimore.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said that some of his 48 employees would likely be laid off under the budget Rawlings-Blake is scheduled to propose next month. Rawlings-Blake did call for one new employee — a consultant who would serve as an "economic development financial czar."
Rawlings-Blake also pledged to increase funding for one project under the auspices of Brodie's agency: Canton's Emerging Technology Center, an incubator for new-technology businesses. The project would receive about $100,000 in additional funding, Brodie said.
Rawlings-Blake did not mention several high-profile projects currently under way — a proposed expansion of the State Center Complex, a new shopping center in Remington that will include a Walmart store or the planned slots casino that has been delayed by legal challenges — but stressed the importance of creating new jobs and attracting new businesses.
She tasked the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore and the Baltimore Development Corp. to draft a plan to "create jobs in emerging industry sectors and position our city for business expansion."
Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry praised Rawlings-Blake for "properly putting an emphasis on the area of economic growth and development" as the country emerges from recession. Cybersecurity, health care and bioscience are poised for growth in the city, he said.
Rawlings-Blake announced plans to create a 10-year plan for the city's finances that would focus on whittling down the $250 million spent each year on benefits for city employees and retirees. The costs have risen more than 35 percent since 2003, although the effects were masked during the economic boom years, she said.
"Cities put off tough challenges and failed to prepare for the day of reckoning," said Rawlings-Blake. "Well, that day of reckoning is here."
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said that the finance department will soon release a request for proposals for a study of public employee benefits.
Rawlings-Blake praised Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso and lauded the Baltimore Teachers' Union for adopting a groundbreaking contract. She pledged to create a "Youth Cabinet," to be headed by Enoch Pratt Free Library CEO Carla Hayden, that would coordinate the city's services for children and youth.
She exhorted residents to back two bills pending before the state legislature that would stiffen penalties for handgun violation.
"We will not back down until the legislature joins us in this fight against criminals and their illegal guns," she said.
Rawlings-Blake vowed to get tough on domestic violence by creating a task force of police, prosecutors and victims' organizations to analyze statistics. She also announced plans to create a "Recovery Corps" of 100 recovering drug addicts to help the estimated 60,000 city residents struggling with addictions.
Stokes, the councilman who is considering a mayoral bid, criticized the speech afterward, saying Rawlings-Blake's proposals were far from ambitious.
"I kept waiting to be awestruck and inspired," he said. "And that moment never came."
In her State of the City address, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged to:
•Streamline the Baltimore Development Corp.
•Increase funding for the Emerging Technology Center by about $100,000.
•Create a Youth Cabinet to coordinate services to young people.
•Form a task force of police, prosecutors and victims' advocates to review domestic violence statistics.
•Develop a long-term plan to reduce benefit costs for city employees and retirees.