Former Mayor Sheila Dixon. (AFRO File Photo)
Many of Baltimore’s problems are structural and can only be addressed with long-term solutions said former Baltimore mayor, Sheila Dixon, during a recent and wide-ranging conversation with the AFRO on the state of the city. Dixon said the nature of politics does not lend itself to this approach to policy making, but that greater courage must be shown by the city’s leaders in laying out long-term visions and trusting that the community will support them to see those visions through.
“Dealing with systemic issues, for elected officials, is not something they focus on because it’s long-term,” Dixon said.
Dixon served as mayor of Baltimore City from 2007 to 2010, resigning amidst a scandal around her alleged misappropriation of gift cards. The former mayor remains popular, regularly greeted by residents.
On the city’s economy, Dixon points out that the city is heavily reliant on its property tax, and on additional fees or taxes like Maryland’s piggyback tax, which is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court. This, according to Dixon, limits the number of people willing to commit to living in the city. The multiple layers of fees on the same residents, causes them to take the income earned in the city out to the surrounding counties where they end up living.
“I think public-private partnerships, as well as regional partnerships, is the way we’re going to need to go,” said Dixon. “We’ve lost population, Baltimore County is gaining every day, and I think that a lot of our people work for the city but live in the counties. I’m not talking about a commuter tax . . . but I think there are some regional things we could collaborate on that I’m not sure if that’s being looked at. And a public-private partnership can only be a win-win on both ends.”
Dixon said that in thinking about public-private partnerships and development in general, it may be necessary to rethink the lowest-bid model that is standard in most government-funded construction projects. “I think that needs to change because one of the things that we were beginning to work on and really at is, even though it’s the lowest bid, how many change orders, in the long run for that project, did it take for that company; and whether or not if you might’ve gone with the second bid, or the third, if those change orders would have happened,” said Dixon, referring to requests by developers or contractors to make changes to the initial approved bid and subsequent contract. “So a lot of times the lowest bid still ends up being what the third bidder bid because of the change orders. So I think it’s got to be the most responsible, and you have to really assess it, and I don’t necessarily support having the lowest bid all the time because sometimes you come in low just to make that number so you can make that contract, but then those addendums come in.”
On public safety, Dixon said it is necessary to pursue a comprehensive approach. Her ideas ranges from early intervention programs that identify and address warning signs, programs that strengthen families, and an approach to policing and public safety that rejects the zero tolerance approach and focuses providing resources to help those with issues in their past make better choices moving forward. She also discussed expanding programs like YouthWorks, which provides city teenagers with summer employment opportunities. Dixon also said the city should have more authority over the Baltimore Police Department, as approximately 80 percent of its budget comes from city coffers.
The nature of politics, with its ever present focus on the next election cycle, impedes this sort of broader approach to the city’s well-being since plans like these may not pay dividends for years, making it harder for politicians to claim credit for progress. Dixon called this concession to political cycles “a lack of courage.”
“I think the city definitely needs someone who’s going to articulate a long term vision, but also involve and engage the community to be a part of that effort as well,” said Dixon.
While Dixon would only use the word “possibly” when discussing her potential involvement in the mayoral elections in 2016, she did share her belief that residents need to hear more from their elected officials. “I think what people need to hear is that . . . no neighborhood in the city is getting more or less, but that we’re trying to balance what we do for people to be able to live healthy and safe . . . . And I think that’s important because now it’s unbalanced in a lot of ways,” Dixon said.