1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
In 2006, I graduated from Loyola University, where I completed a Master's of Business Administration degree with a concentration in finance. My undergraduate degree from the Johns Hopkins University is in social & behavioral sciences, with concentrations in urban studies and public policy. A proud alumnus of the Greater Baltimore Committee's LEADERship program, I also graduated from Loyola-Blakefield High School's honors program and St. Mary's parish school in Govans. I believe I am the only councilperson to have graduated from two schools in their district, although St. Mary's parish school is now closed; the building is now used as Tunbridge Public Charter School, where both of my daughters are enrolled.
I've also been active as a volunteer for over twenty years, which I consider to be a big part of my education in terms of preparing me for service on the Council. I am a former board president at both Citizens Planning and Housing Association and the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, and have served on the boards of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Johns Hopkins Society of Black Alumni, the Radnor-Winston Improvement Association, and the Mobtown Players theater company. A longtime advocate for strengthening the York-Greenmount corridor, I co-chaired the Greenmount Avenue Revitalization Task Force while at Greater Homewood and have served on the steering committee for the York Road Partnership.
Before being elected to represent North and Northeast Baltimore's 4th District in 2007, I spent eight years working in community development at the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation. Prior to that, I spent about seven years as staff in City Hall, first interning in the Mayor's office under Kurt Schmoke and then in the City Council President's office, working my way up from legislative aide under Mary Pat Clarke to chief of staff under Lawrence Bell. I also served as a congressional aide to Ben Cardin between "tours of duty" in City Hall, later working in the private sector as a consultant, concentrating in organizational development and government & community relations.
As a member of the City Council, I represent the Council on Baltimore City's Planning Commission. My committee assignments include being vice chair of the Taxation, Finance & Economic Development committee and a member of the Education committee, the Judiciary & Legislative Investigations committee, the Policy & Planning committee and the Land Use & Transportation committee, where I chair the Highways & Franchises subcommittee. I also serve as the Council's representative on the Community Media of Baltimore City (CMBC) Board of Directors.
Throughout my schooling, my career, and my civic engagement, my goal has always been to figure out how to make Baltimore better and then make it happen; I have spent most of my adult life working with individuals and organizations similarly committed to that goal. Whether that effort was focused on the neighborhoods of Patterson Park, Greater Homewood, the York-Greenmount Corridor, or the City as a whole, all of the various takeaways from those endeavors have contributed to making me the best candidate for representing the 4th District on the City Council.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
I'm from here, I grew up here, and I stayed here to raise my family. I love Baltimore and I want my kids to love it as much as I do. I want them to enjoy their childhood and I want them to grow up as happy and fulfilled as I did. If they choose to leave Baltimore, I want it to be because they found unique opportunities elsewhere, not because Baltimore wasn't a good enough place for them to stay and raise their own families.
A lot of the people who move out of the City do so because they're tired of the "quality of life" crime that pervades even neighborhoods that aren't challenged with serious or violent crime; lower property taxes won't make an all-night fraternity party next door, or a smashed car window, or constant litter in the gutters and on the sidewalks any less annoying. Others move out of - or won't move into - the City because they don't believe in our schools; cutting their property taxes in half still won't come close to making up the cost of sending several children a year to Gilman or Bryn Mawr. In too many parts of my district, when I'm out knocking on doors and asking constituents for their support, they ask me for a job in return; cutting their property taxes in half, would -- at best -- make up for one or two of the paychecks that they are currently trying to make do without altogether.
Much of my work on the Council -- which I propose to continue if given the opportunity -- has been aimed, as much as I could, at addressing these issues. I've spent several years now trying to find the right balance of enforcement and education to deal with neighborhood nuisances. I've pushed the connection between investing in opportunities for youth and increasing public safety, attempting to sum up my position in an opinion piece in your own publication, referenced again in the third answer below. I've been a supporter of my district schools individually, as well as Dr. Alonso's initiatives to improve the system as a whole. I've introduced legislation to try to reduce the unemployment in our neighborhoods by finding legal ways to give City residents preference in City-funded purchasing and contracting.
Yes, I enjoy serving on the Council partly because helping people with individual constituent problems is important to me and gives me a sense of accomplishment. However, as I said above, my goal has always been to figure out how to make Baltimore better and then make it happen. I enjoy serving on the Council because it's a great place to learn what I need to do to best address the myriad of problems Baltimore faces. The City Council is also a great soap box from which to implement those solutions, and make Baltimore the absolute best city it can be.
3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you advocate for to improve public safety in the city?
While I support the current strategy of targeting violent crime and offenders, I recognize that it is purely one of law enforcement; the long-term solution to reducing violent crime involves major changes to the ways we approach education, housing, job training, and drug treatment. We should be suspicious of anyone who thinks we can police our way out of our current situation. If we want to create a sustainable society with less violent crime, we will need to ensure that everyone has access to a decent education, quality affordable housing, and a job that can support them. This will be challenging and will require a great deal of political will -- to be willing to re-invest not just in Baltimore's physical infrastructure, but in the human capital that will be Baltimore's future.
In the short-term, along with targeting violent crime and offenders, we must increase community involvement in fighting crime, and we must give our children something productive to do rather than getting involved with a criminal element.
To encourage community involvement, the City Council passed my Confiscated Assets for Neighborhoods law. When city police arrest criminals with less than $2,000 in cash on them, after the court case is over, the money goes to the city's general fund. Under my law, a portion of this money is supposed to be set aside for grants to neighborhood groups who are running their own public safety programs. The grant program would be run by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, with the funds prorated according to police districts, based on the amount of money confiscated within each district. It has yet to be funded.
By emphasizing that we're all in it together, and supporting those communities that are putting their own time and energy into making their neighborhoods safer, we can make crime reduction something "we" are doing and not just something for which "they" are responsible.
As for giving our children something productive to do, first of all, I support the Safe & Sound Campaign's effort to use the Baltimore City annual operating budget to fund basic opportunity for our youth. Properly applied, we can leverage millions of state and private dollars to make our city strong and our people safe, healthy and productive participants of our communities.
Second, as I wrote in a May 2009 opinion piece in your own publication, we must budget as if youth development programs are public safety programs because they are.
I go to a lot of events where children and youth are the main focus. I spend lots of time in rooms with people who talk about the importance of youth and how youth are our future - and who then go home to communities where they and their neighbors look out their windows, see those same youth standing on the corners, and are frightened.
At that point, few call their councilperson asking for more late-night recreation programs in their community. Almost nobody e-mails the mayor demanding that she put more money for after-school programs in her budget. Most simply call the police and tell them to hurry. This may explain why over a twenty-year period, the police budget has more than doubled while Recreation and Parks' budget has actually shrunk.
Even when times are tough, we have to be willing to spend our resources on long-term solutions, or the problems will never go away. Recreation centers, libraries and other after-school programming are the tools city government has available to prevent not just crime but criminals. We need to recognize that youth development isn't another priority in competition with public safety; it IS public safety.
4. Do you support the recent reforms in the Baltimore City school system? Do you believe any changes are needed in the schools' governance structure (such as direct mayoral control or an elected school board)?
I think many of Dr. Alonso's reforms have been badly-needed and I applaud both his efforts to continue to turn the system around and the existing school board's support of these reforms in the face of understandable criticism. That being said, the fact that there is no direct connection between the City Council and the governance structure of the school system is often a difficult one for us to explain to our constituents.
There are some who are suggesting that the way to best connect the governance structure with the citizens is through an elected or a partially-elected school board. When I look across the country at other elected school boards though, I usually see them in places where the school district itself is taxing residents. Since our school board does not make the actual decision to tax us by any given amount, I feel that they are more appropriately selected like other commission members or agency heads -- nominated by elected executives and confirmed by a local legislature.
My suggestion therefore is to change state law to require that school board commissioners be confirmed by the City Council after a public hearing, just like members of the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board, or agency heads. In this proposal, the remainder of the current nominating process would otherwise be unchanged. Over the next few months, I look forward to participating in Delegate Mary Washington's working group on school governance, as we try to identify which of the suggested changes would be the best for our kids in the long run.
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
The most straight forward way to address a backlog that big is to set aside that much bonding authority, float $2 billion in bonds over five or six years, and dedicate a new or redirected revenue stream to pay that debt service, which I think would be about $70 million annually.
Some of that could be covered by a big chunk of the City's slots revenue -- the chunk not being used to reduce property taxes -- but the slots revenue alone wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the whole of the needed debt service. Additionally, those funds from the State which are currently being made available for the BCPSS' capital needs would have to be guaranteed to be there to instead help pay the debt service on the bonds which would have already addressed the backlog.
In an ideal world, the argument that it would be worth it to the State to have Baltimore City's schools strong and healthy would be sufficient to convince the State to guarantee all of the debt service, with the slots revenue counting as our match. Since the General Assembly's end results are often less than ideal however, we will probably need to find an additional source of revenue to fill the debt service gap.
6. Property taxes have become a major issue in this year's election. Do you believe the city's tax rate needs to be cut? If so, by how much, and what steps would you take to keep the city's budget in balance while lowering the rate?
Like most people, I agree that that the City's tax rate needs to be cut if we are ever going to achieve real parity with the surrounding counties in marketing ourselves to residents and businesses as long as we can do so without slashing even deeper into the basic services that City government is responsible for providing. Since we now have almost thirty years of proof that "trickle down" economics doesn't really work, any responsible reduction of the property tax rate will require substituting additional revenue into the general fund as the rate is reduced.
Based on my experience as a former real estate agent and my time in community development at Patterson Park, our target competitive tax rate is not a fixed number. Given the ever-changing housing market, the value of homes in the City tends to shift relative to essentially identical houses in the surrounding counties. There have actually been points in the last quarter-century when the cost of a house in the City was so much less than the cost of an identical one in the suburbs, having a tax rate half of ours didn't really help the counties; people were paying almost the same taxes on almost the same house. At current values though, I suspect that we would need to reduce our tax rate by at least 20% to 25% achieve that same effect.
While admittedly regressive, given the City's role as draw for both tourists and commuters, an increase in the sales tax is probably our best bet as a source of revenue with which to wean the general fund off of property tax revenue. Either a one-cent regional sales tax (as proposed by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Taxes and Fees) or an extra percent on the statewide sales tax (with the full additional increase prorated back to the counties of origin) could easily raise most of what would be needed to reduce our tax rate by that amount; the rest would come from that portion of slots revenue not already allocated to additional school construction and renovation.
7. The city has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. If that trend continues, what top priorities would you protect from cuts? In what areas would you pursue spending reductions?
Four years of budget hearings have not changed my initial attitude towards the Council's role in dealing with a shortfall -- no department should be invulnerable from cuts, since there may be wasteful spending anywhere. Likewise, it is doubtful that any program or office is completely worthless and deserves to be gutted without careful thought.
That being disclaimed, you can see from my platform that I will always start with certain biases. I believe we need to be spending more on youth opportunities -- after-school activities (not just at schools, but at libraries and rec centers), mentoring programs, youth-based job programs -- these are areas where the City's efforts pays off so greatly, I would find it unwise to reduce these programs. If possible, I would increase such spending, believing as I do that the consequences for the City's future more than justify the investment.
As for areas where I would pursue spending reductions, it's almost never possible to specify that before we're given the agency detail books. If I have to generalize though, I'd say that I'd like more of our administrative hierarchies to be flatter. Across the board, whenever we eliminate ground-level jobs, it's less clear that we went all the way up the ladder and skimmed the appropriate number of related supervisory positions.
8. Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade. What would you do to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents?
The low-hanging fruit for this answer is a reduction of the property tax, which would spur not only reinvestment by residents, but would encourage economic development as well. One strategy that I have discussed with my colleagues -- which has often been misconstrued as providing overall property tax relief, but which would in fact be more appropriately described as a commercial development stimulus -- would be to balance a higher homestead tax credit cap with a slightly-lower tax rate .
As I said earlier, I've already introduced legislation to try to reduce the unemployment in our neighborhoods by finding legal ways to give City residents preference in City-funded purchasing and contracting. To me, this is a win-win. We are already spending millions of dollars each year in capital improvements and purchasing -- why not maximize our own tax dollars by keeping as much of it in the City as possible? Every time I see a Pennsylvania or Virginia license plate on the truck of a contractor at a City worksite, I am both saddened and frustrated. Even if the community partnership agreements are not the final answer, the City's own Law Department has opined that it should be possible to craft pro-residency policies, with a little creative lawyering -- we should get that started sooner, not later.