Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and several members of the City Council spent Monday publicizing bills that would be introduced during that day’s city council meeting.
One bill would dedicate a small part of the city budget to youth programs. Another would return 911 operations to the police department. A third would cut property taxes for certain grocery stores and fourth would halve the storm water remediation fee.
Money For Children
Council President Jack Young is sponsoring a charter amendment that would require three percent of the city’s budget – currently $31 million – go to fund youth programs.
He announced the bill at a news conference at the Digital Harbor Foundation in Federal Hill, surrounded by other council members..
“Each and every one of us [knows] of an example of private citizens and who deeply understand the needs of our children and we are working to make a better Baltimore for them to grow up in,” he said.
Young mentioned examples drawn from a Baltimore Sun op-ed he wrote that was published Monday morning; a woman opening a “safe zone” for children near the epicenter of riots following Freddie Gray’s funeral and the 300 Man March.
He said his amendment is based on similar initiatives in San Francisco and Oakland, Ca. and Miami-Dade County, Fla.
If approved by the council and signed by the mayor, the amendment will appear on the November 2016 ballot. The requirement would go into effect for the 2018 budget year, if voter approved.
The amendment also spells out the details on the types of programs eligible for money from the fund as well as the limits on what the money can be used for.
Attracting Grocery Stores
The mayor held her own news conference later in the day to talk about her strategy to bring more grocery stores to the city. She’s pushing a 10-year personal property tax break for new and existing grocery stores; but not for just any grocery store.
“It is very targeted to retailers in food desert retail incentive areas and specifically supermarkets,” the mayor said. “Not for mega stores, not for corner stores; this is for supermarkets.”
Baltimore City has defined food deserts based on poverty level, the location of a grocery store, accessibility to transportation and the number of healthy food options.
For example, most of Northeast Baltimore is not a food desert because of relatively higher income levels compared to other neighborhoods, availability of public and private transportation and the number of healthy food options. Many areas of West Baltimore are food deserts because of the number of unhealthy options – like carryout restaurants – and the lack of access to transportation.
Bill Cole, president and CEO of Baltimore Development Corporation--the city’s economic development agency--said the bill is aimed at keeping existing grocery stores in the city.
“We will continue to do everything in our collective power to assist those stores that are already serving our most economically challenged neighborhoods,” said Cole.
He said the tax cut should help existing stores to use the savings to upgrade their locations.
Busy 911 Prompts Call For Hearing
Councilmen Nick Mosby and Mary Pat Clarke say too many callers to 911 have gotten busy signals or their calls have been dropped. That’s why they want emergency operators and dispatchers moved from the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, MOIT, back to the police department.
“That 911 interactions from a citizen’s perspective is really the gateway to public safety whether the individual is a victim or a witness to that particular crime,” Mosby said.
Emergency operators and dispatchers were moved from the police department to MOIT five years ago. But in June 2014, 911 callers all got busy signals because of technical difficulties. Even today, you can see occasional tweets about not being able to call 911.
Stokes Wants To Halve Storm Water Fee
Councilman Carl Stokes, citing complaints from his constituents, introduced a bill to cut the storm water remediation fee, popularly referred to as the rain tax by critics, in half.
The General Assembly removed the mandate earlier this year and many of the affected jurisdictions either removed the fee or reduced it substantially.
Stokes said neither has happened in the city and added that the quarterly water bills have become a burden for citizens when you factor in “double digit” rate hikes and other fees.
“Almost none of my citizens receive a double digit income boost annually,” said Stokes. “They’re finding it very difficult to find the dollars to continue to pay for the higher and higher water rate.”
Stokes, who is running for mayor, said even after the fee is slashed, Baltimore would still have the highest fee among the other nine jurisdictions required to improve storm water infrastructure as part of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts
Water rates went up by 11 percent last July; increasing the average quarterly bill by $22 for a family of four.