For Baltimore City to grow and prosper once again, several problems must be solved: jobs, crime, and education are chief among them. But these are mere symptoms of the decades of systematic disinvestment which has characterized much of urban America since 1960.
A return to prosperity is possible, and we’ve seen it happen in other American cities like Washington, DC and New York City. But this didn’t happen by accident. It happened through a combination of strong political leadership and outside and local investment.
It happened by creating a level playing field, and creating a fair, open, and equitable business climate that attracted outside investment. It happened by creating city governments that were open and accountable and in which citizens have some confidence.
In cities like Boston and San Francisco, it happened thanks to the lowering of property tax rates across the board, spurring not just Big Developer projects but investment by individual homeowners.
But in Baltimore, we have two distinct problems. One is qualitative: we can’t be trusted. The other is quantitative: we need to fix property taxes.
Baltimore is just not trustworthy. No one trusts Baltimore City government. Outside investors see the city as a parochial, pay-to-play backwater where insiders call the shots. Commercial developers correctly believe that you need to make significant investment in laying groundwork with specific politicians, developers, and contractors to get a project started here.
Prospective residential buyers perceive Baltimore City government as bloated, inefficient, outdated, resistant to change, and focused more on working out deals with insider developers than on creating a solid residential base. And they have good reason to harbor this perception. While there are many good and dedicated people in city government who care deeply about residents and residential issues, the inefficiency and waste are undeniable. And they are everyday reality for city residents — many of whom share their horror stories with their friends and neighbors.
Many Baltimore City agencies have not been audited in decades. The audit of the Department of Recreation and Parks is now almost one year overdue — primarily because of lack of sufficient financial records. Baltimore City is preparing to return $7M to the federal government because it was unable to account for how Baltimore’s Homeless Services department spent any of those funds.
This is inexcusable. In any other setting, if money goes missing, heads roll. But the machine grinds on here with no firings, no outrage, just talking around the facts and playing down the mistakes. It’s no wonder no one trusts Baltimore City government, for it has proven itself not only untrustworthy but systemically incapable of correcting the problem.
Yes, we need to restructure property taxes. Boston and San Francisco both flourished after making changes to their property taxes. Every city is unique, and their fortunes were rising in many ways regardless. Our star is rising too. We are an incredibly well-located city in the richest state in the union. The future is bright — and we can accelerate our fortune dramatically.
Before we worry over fixing property taxes (a quantitative problem), let’s first prove that we’re capable of earning and actually worthy of people’s trust once again (a qualitative problem).
Let’s show that we care about financial accountability by rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in every corner of Baltimore government. Let’s show we’re serious by pledging to:
- Perform annual audits of every city agency
- Discipline and fire people who oversee waste and abuse
- Prosecute cases of fraud, graft, and malfeasance
- Level the playing field for outside investors (both commercial and residential)
- Get serious about eliminating inefficiency and waste
- Open as much of the city’s records and data as possible
- Cultivate the perception that Baltimore government is fair, honest, open, and efficient
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake is a smart, capable, and honest leader who has become entrenched in the culture of business-as-usual here in Baltimore — which simply must change. We need to call on the Mayor to lead this charge and demand accountability from all of the departments she oversees.
This isn’t going away. The next step in Baltimore’s return to prominence is to become — and be perceived as — a trusted and honest partner. Sweeping problems under the rug won’t get us there.
Instead, it’s time to start throwing some people — the people who allow waste, fraud, and abuse — under the bus. Comprehensive financial and performance audits of city government are the best way to begin.