Frank DeFilippo: Baltimore, Take Me to Your Leader

Former Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D). Photo by Bruce DePuyt

If an alien dropped down from outer space and asked a Baltimorean to take me to your leader, the Baltimorean wouldn’t know where to go.

Even more to the point of what ails the city, how would Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, or any other billionaire entrepreneur who’s seeking investment or relocation opportunities, react to the metastatic mess that is Baltimore? Jeffrey Bezos has already issued the city a rejection slip. Corporate leadership in Baltimore has disintegrated and is virtually nonexistent. Its major financial institutions have disappeared.

Equally telling is the backstage rumble that is developing within Baltimore’s business community. An informal group of downtown businessmen are concerned over the Greater Baltimore Committee’s sclerotic leadership and is quietly agitating to challenge its hegemony within the city’s business structure. In its heady earlier days, the GBC was considered a shadow partner with City Hall in Baltimore’s governance.

Baltimore is a city adrift. City Hall is in disarray with a primary election a few months away and challenges from within about who’ll take over to set the tone and the tactic for Baltimore’s attempted turn-around and restoration to its former medieval grandeur. There’s lots of yammering about leadership, but the pickings are pretty slim.

One election will be built within another, as the city’s portion of the Seventh Congressional district is heavily black. The municipal elections on April 28 will no doubt be entangled with the special congressional primary election on Feb. 4 when voters will choose among 32 candidates – 24 of the bunch are Democrats – to run in the April 28 election to fill out the remainder of Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term. Again, beyond a serviceable name or three, it’s slim pickings among the congressional candidates.

Here’s a random fact sheet on the state of the city that illustrates the systemic faults that are crumbling Baltimore:

Charm City has become alarm city. There have been about 700 non-fatal shootings and 309 murders (as of this writing) in the city so far this year, eclipsing the dreaded threshold number of 300 for the fifth straight year. Baltimore is once again on pace to lead the list as the nation’s murder capital.

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Orange is the new black. The second mayor in a decade has just been indicted and pleaded guilty to four charges of conspiracy and fraud. The first, Sheila Dixon, literally took from the poor to enrich herself. Dixon used gift cards intended for the poor to buy presents for herself and her family and friends. Dixon ran for mayor again, after being forced from office, only to lose to Catherine Pugh by 2,500 votes, turning over to Pugh the franchise for self-enrichment to which she has pleaded guilty in federal court.

The feds followed Maryland’s bread crumb trail. Pugh, the second mayoral indictee who by plea agreement soon may be measured for an orange jumpsuit, engaged in an elaborate publishing scheme that netted her about $800,000 for poor grammar and misspelling in kids’ health books which, in some cases, she double sold, and in others never delivered but collected payments. Pugh took orders for about 124,000 books but printed only 63,210 copies.

The purchasers who wrote the sizeable checks – in the case of the University of Maryland Medical Systems $500,000 – were all either doing, or seeking to do, business with the city or state, dating back to Pugh’s time in the Maryland Senate, part of her decade there as majority leader. Pugh’s resume now lists conspiracy and tax fraud among her achievements. Google is everybody’s rap sheet.

Pugh said of her sticky fingers that she bought and repaired a nice house in which to entertain as mayor and also used the money to fund her campaign.

Since Pugh’s resignation in May, the city has been in the custody of Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, who, despite a major blooper when the city’s leadership was criticized – “I’m not committing the murders” – has tried to keep his fingers in the dike. Young has challengers for election to a full term.

Baltimore is a city on life support. The entire town is underwritten by six Zip codes – Guilford, Roland Park, Mount Washington, Canton, Federal Hill and Fells Point. Roughly one-third of Baltimore’s residents pay full taxes, one-third pays part of their taxes and the remaining third pays no taxes.

In one of those financial arrangements peculiar to municipalities, many of Baltimore’s downtown properties are non-profits and exempt from property taxes – colleges and universities, hospitals, schools, churches, nursing homes, foundations and other non-profit organizations.

Measure a mile in any direction from the city’s center at Charles and Baltimore Streets, and 45 percent of the property within that real estate box is tax exempt and a non-contributor to the city’s property tax base.

And in one of those misbegotten acts of desperation a number of years ago, the city’s leaders declared Baltimore a welcoming haven for non-profit organizations. Go figure. The property tax in Baltimore is double that of any other subdivision.

As every political rubbernecker knows, there are about 14,000 vacant and boarded up houses in Baltimore, presumably waiting to be demolished, their acreage scheduled for repurposing into the greening of Baltimore.

But wait! There are 14,000 people on a wait-list for public housing, some as long as five years. (No, many of the houses awaiting the wrecking ball cannot be rehabilitated into livable quarters. Many are packed with asbestos. The cost of asbestos removal is about $15,000-$25,000 a house. It’s cheaper to build new.)

There are 12,600 public housing units in Baltimore, and 23,000 people living in 30 public housing complexes.

There are 320 low income housing apartment communities with 31,946 affordable apartments for rent. And there are 22,737 low income apartments where rental assistance is offered.

Young has told city agencies to prepare for cuts to cough up the $330 million a year Baltimore will need to match the state’s share of the Kirwan education improvement study. And here’s the saddest news of all: The dropout rate from Baltimore schools is 14 percent and its graduation rate is 91.9 percent.

Baltimore has the highest truancy rate in the state – 37 percent of its students missed 10 percent of school last year, which translates to 20,000 of its 82,350 students are chronically absent.

Baltimore has become virtually a ward of the state, which owns or controls many of the high-profile assets within the city’s boundaries. Some reverted recently, others now in the state portfolio date back decades to the days of Gov. Marvin Mandel and Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the gold-dust twins of Political Boss Irv Kovens’ clubhouse, who began the resuscitation of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

But the mandarins in state government who have been pouring millions into the city are becoming increasingly fed up with the lack of progress and the accumulation of embarrassments that are thwarting the restoration effort.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R), for one, has expressed his displeasure with the irreversible crime rate after dispensing millions in dollars and manpower to blunt the trend. Hogan is pushing the city for tougher law enforcement at a time when the black community, along with State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, is clamoring for relaxing prosecution of low-level crimes.

The city’s delegation to the General Assembly might also begin to feel the brakes of wrath. Every year they go, hat in hand, begging for more money to bail out the impecunious city, and soon the embarrassment of failures may cost them the votes they need to secure desperately needed funding. Legislators from the outlying subdivisions may tire of paying for the city’s problems without seeing results.

That alien in search of a leader might just hop back into the spaceship and try another city.