How Baltimore can pull itself from its death spiral

If 2019 proved anything in Baltimore, it proved that the city cannot pull itself out of its death spiral without more help from the state, and I’m not just talking about money. The Maryland General Assembly should create a new entity to address Baltimore’s long-term economic and social problems. The entity should be tasked with adopting a comprehensive recovery plan for Baltimore and empowered to approve projects and programs for implementing that plan.

No matter who it is, the winner of next year’s mayoral election cannot save Baltimore without changes to the city’s governance. The job of developing and implementing a long-term recovery plan while restoring competence and integrity to the day-to-day operations of city government is too big for one person.

The gravity of the situation makes the odds of a “savior” being elected mayor too long on which to gamble the future of the city; even a reincarnation of iconic former mayor William Donald Schaefer would be in over his head. And remember, Schaefer himself did little to eliminate the phenomenon of “two Baltimores,” one affluent and predominantly white, the other impoverished and largely black.

The mayor and city council will have their hands full dealing with political corruption, dysfunctional city agencies, bad schools and an unrelenting epidemic of violent crime. While they work on the short-term goal of restoring an efficient and effective municipal government, the new entity could put together and implement a plan for undoing the consequences of a history of structural racism and intergenerational poverty through economic and social projects and programs.

The new entity is needed to do work that city government has proved incapable of doing. Post reporter Erin Cox described in heartbreaking detail the failure of efforts galvanized by the riots following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015.

The city-led efforts to tackle Baltimore’s deep-seated problems got off to a promising start. Within two years, it had collapsed. Why? The key reason was that there was no entity capable of sustaining the initial progress made by an organization called “OneBaltimore.”

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was Baltimore’s mayor in 2015. She announced the creation of OneBaltimore 10 days after the riots. The objective of OneBaltimore was “to create a multidisciplinary, public-private sector operational structure for the purpose of coordinating resources, collecting data and information, facilitating implementation partnerships, and promoting policies and solutions focused on closing health, economic, education, and civic disparities in Baltimore City.”

The idea was sound, but OneBaltimore lacked two essential ingredients: Legal authority and institutional permanence. By March 2017, Rawlings-Blake and OneBaltimore were gone.

Projects and programs come and go in Baltimore, and even successful ones get discarded when city leadership changes. The lack of consistency and continuity is the product of shortsighted politics, a malady in Baltimore not likely to be cured in the foreseeable future.

Baltimore needs a OneBaltimore with teeth. Only the General Assembly can make that happen. A state entity also would bring fiscal credibility. The infusion of state and other money that the city needs is unlikely to occur without assurances that the investment won’t be squandered.

The pay-to-play culture exposed by the Healthy Holly book scandal did not enhance the city’s reputation as a steward of taxpayers’ money. Nor does the history of Baltimore’s Children and Youth Fund, a post-Freddie Gray initiative. Beginning in 2017, approximately $12 million in the annual city budget has been earmarked for services to improve the lives of young people.

The fund was set up as a grant program administered outside of normal city financial controls under a no-bid contract given to a local nonprofit. The nonprofit has been slow to award the available funds. It became ensnared in the Healthy Holly controversy as one of the purchasers of books from former mayor Catherine Pugh.

Although an audit done as a result of the controversy found that the nonprofit failed to document that it consistently awarded grants in a “fair and transparent” manner, it remains in charge of the fund. And so it goes in Baltimore: One step forward, two steps back.

The new oversight body should be free of control by the city government, not free of the influence of Baltimoreans. There is a wealth of talent in and around the city, including in the region’s superb universities, that can help plot the course to Baltimore’s recovery. Baltimore’s problems can be solved over time if resources are prudently and consistently applied, which means the application must be guided by expertise rather than by politics. It’s time to try something new.

[Published as an op-ed by the Washington Post on January 12, 2020 but not posted to my blog until August 25, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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