A year of challenges for city residents
Mayor says city is making progress on resolving problems
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as Mayor of Baltimore as she is sworn in by Frank Conaway Sr. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / December 6, 2011)
"We must focus on the fundamentals and do them well," the newly elected mayor said, "or face the prospect of trying to do everything — most of it poorly."
But as Rawlings-Blake concludes her first year as elected mayor, having previously served the final two years of her predecessor's term, her administration has faltered on some of those fundamentals.
Water bills arrived in some mailboxes with erroneously exorbitant sums. Property tax bills similarly were miscalculated — state errors the city never caught — with homestead and other credits going to owners who didn't qualify for them. And most recently, a Baltimore Sun investigation found that drivers received tickets from speed cameras while traveling below the posted limit or even stopped at a light.
Along with a series of massive, traffic-snarling water main breaks, and an expensive dispute over upgrading the city phone system, the year 2012 was troubled by what political observer Matthew Crenson called "internal goof-ups."
"When you don't correct things immediately, it changes people's perspective on government," said Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "They become less satisfied with the service they're getting. In some senses, city government becomes less legitimate. It's important not just to respond, but to respond fast."
In an interview, Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that the missteps have taken a toll on the public's confidence in City Hall. She said fixes are under way, but it will take time to resolve problems that in some cases were years in the making.
"It frustrates me when we get it wrong," the mayor said. "So whether it's a water bill or it's speed cameras or anything, when we fall short it motivates me to make sure that we get it right. And the frustrating part for me as well is sometimes it takes a long time or longer than I'd like to untangle problems that have lingered."
She called the focus of her administration "reform," and cited examples of efforts to rein in spending and address existing problems in a city that has lost a third of its population since World War II.
"The things we've identified as broken that need to be fixed, we're checking them off," Rawlings-Blake said. "Whether it's working with the school system to right-size the school system and create a funding stream for new construction or whether it's dealing with the fire and police pension — an issue that's been kicked down the road for years — or a plan to reinvigorate rec centers. … All the things we know need to be fixed, we continued to make progress on those things."
But as the cost of living in the city seems ever on the rise, some residents have grown impatient, if not outright angry. When the water rate goes up by 9 percent every year, for example, shouldn't the charges at least be accurate? they ask.
"They were crying poverty, shutting down rec centers and starting the bottle tax," said Patterson Park resident Matt Gonter, a self-described gadfly who has tracked property tax credits that were granted erroneously. "Why don't you start collecting the money owed in the first place?"
Some join the mayor in counseling patience.
"Admittedly, much went wrong this year from the perspective of people who live or work in the city," said Anirban Basu, an economist who runs the Baltimore-based consulting firm Sage Policy Group. "They were charged excessively for water. They received erroneous tickets, and city infrastructure crumbled.
"However, many of these problems were inherited or, at a minimum, were things that the city could do little about," Basu said. "Many of these issues were not generated this year."
Error-ridden water bills
Residents have complained about erratic water bills for years. But the issue grabbed widespread attention in 2012 when the city's auditor found the Department of Public Works overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million. A Sun investigation also uncovered numerous problems, including a $100,000 overbilling of Cockeysville Middle School and a Randallstown woman who'd been receiving her neighbor's bills for seven years.
The errors compounded, tripling sewage bills for customers of the city system who live in Baltimore County, and the city admitted that some workers fictionalized bills. At the same time, The Sun reported, a dozen area businesses, nonprofits and federal government organizations owed the city more than $10.5 million for water bills that were past due by at least six months.
The administration pledged a series of reforms, including increasing the number of meter readers, inspectors and customer service representatives. Public works officials say the average waiting time to speak to a customer service representative has been reduced to two minutes from a peak of 24 minutes in February.