In the wake of criticism that she lacks a well-structured vision for the city, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed a gamut of issues during her State of the City speech, unveiling a 10-year budgetary plan and initiatives to combat domestic violence and drug addiction.

“Today, more than ever, we face a crossroads,” she said, noting that the recession has “exposed fiscal vulnerabilities at all levels of government.”

She proposed to shape a long-term financial plan to stabilize the city’s budget, which has a projected $80 million shortfall. Though she said the budget priorities will be “clear,” she did not chart the plan, merely alluding that it could lead to benefits changes and agency consolidations.

“It will not be easy, but it is necessary to survive and move forward. To suggest otherwise would be unrealistic and irresponsible,” she said.

The mayor, who celebrated one year in office last week, also took a veiled jab at her critics, mostly mayoral challengers, who say she hasn’t outlined a passionate vision for Baltimore. “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 during her address. “A city that lives on falsehood and false promises is a city that’s dying.”

In what seemed to be a prod to several potential challengers who have pledged to lower property taxes if elected, Rawlings-Blake said some “irresponsibly ignore and mislead” about property tax relief.

Yet, soon after, she discussed paving a “path towards reduction in property taxes.”
She also proposed a volunteer initiative called Baltimore Recovery Corp that would turn 100 former drug addicts into recovery advocates.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, who works with the homeless and drug addicts, said she was impressed with the mayor’s proposal.

“Even though they get the resources from medical clinics, it’s favorable when they can help each other and get positive feedback from people who have recovered and get insight to move forward,” she said.

In addition, domestic violence against women will receive a “renewed focus” in the mayor’s administration, Rawlings-Blake said, heralding plans to sign legislation that would increase funding for domestic violence shelters.

She also announced the launch of Domestic Violence Stat, or DVStat, to improve citywide tracking of violent offenders and proposed creation of the state’s first supervised visitation center for families with histories of domestic violence.

On the job creation front, she relished the Under Armour clothing company’s interest in purchasing a site at Locust Point, and affirmed continued funding for city career centers and the Emerging Technology Center (ETC) Incubator program. ETC companies have generated a reported $270 million in economic activity for the city.

In the city address, her second as mayor, Rawlings-Blake vowed to restructure the city’s economic development agency, Baltimore Development Corp, to ensure its workers complete more projects. Its core focus areas will shift to real estate development, retention and attraction of businesses, and retail and commercial development in new neighborhoods.

She also tapped the agency and at least two other private sector groups to conceive a strategic plan that will spur job growth in innovative industries.

The mayor touted her administration’s budget decisions and pension overhaul. “Now for the first time in decades, we can look every police officer and firefighter in the eye and tell them the truth: Yes, your retirement is more secure and it will be there when you need it,” she said.

She also praised ratification of the teacher’s contract and improvements in Baltimore City Public Schools.

“Dr. Alonso. Where do we begin with you?” she said with a laugh. “First, let’s change your name to Dr. Progress.”

Rawlings-Blake announced formation of a new Mayor’s Youth Cabinet, headed by Dr. Carla Hayden of the Enoch Pratt Free Library System that will leverage state, federal and private funding for children services.

Following a brief nod to the Police Department for lowering the homicide and overall gun crime rates, she plugged her two state legislation proposals, which would stiffen prison sentences for repeat gun offenders.

Her speech was layered with a familiar theme of transparency. “Our vision, our plan, and our solution will be rooted in telling the truth and making tough choices,” she said. “I’m choosing to head down the straight-talking, no sugar-coating path toward change and progress for Baltimore.”

Councilman Carl Stokes, who plans to challenge Rawlings-Blake in September, called her speech “pretty vanilla.” He discredited her claim of transparency, insisting she was not specific about her 10-year financial plan or her plans to cut school funding over the next two years.

Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the mayor’s address was “comprehensive and relatively straightforward,” though she did not touch on several key matters.

“There are a whole set of issues she didn’t consider but probably should have in order to put pressure on the governor and the president to do more for the cities,” he said, pinpointing unemployment and foreclosure concerns.

Stokes said the speech did not disprove her detractors. “All in all, I thought it was a nice speech, but there was no strong vision,” he said. “There was nothing bold about it.”

Spence agreed Rawlings-Blake has a “vision problem.”

“But then again, they all do,” he said. “Every major politician’s vision of the city is stuck 30 or more years in the past.”

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO