Answers from Elizabeth Embry
Elizabeth Embry is a career public servant and proven leader with a long track record of success and reform. She has worked for a Governor, an Attorney General, two State's Attorneys, and two Mayors. Elizabeth lives in Better Waverly. She is a proud product of Baltimore City public schools. She graduated from City College, and then attended Yale University. After graduation, she signed on at the New York City Housing Department to work on programs designed to transform vacant buildings into thriving neighborhoods. Read more.
Do you believe that the City property tax rate is a deterrent to attracting new residents and businesses to locate in Baltimore City?
If you answered "yes" to Qt. 1, what is your strategy for reducing the tax rate?
Baltimore's tax rates are among the highest in the nation, placing a staggering burden on homeowners and making it far more difficult to attract and retain families and businesses. To promote economic growth, we need to ease the tax burden for everyone in Baltimore. But, we also must do so in a responsible manner that does not open up an enormous hole in the budget.
There are those who have proposed massive reductions in taxes, essentially crossing their fingers that doing so will not force cuts to police or firefighters, or education and housing. And to pay for these reductions, they often are forced to make other tax changes that harm some owners to benefit others.
That approach is gambling with the future of our city. The best way to grow the economy and encourage families to choose Baltimore is to implement tax reform in a gradual, dependable, transparent and equitable manner.
As Mayor, I will reduce taxes each year to complete Mayor Rawlings-Blake's 20 cent commitment. I would commit the city to a schedule keyed to changes in property tax valuation for further tax deductions. I would use but improve TIFs and PILOTs, ensuring they are used for the public benefit, with stronger local hiring requirements, and expanding their use in neighborhoods outside the downtown area, guaranteeing greater transparency and stronger accountability, strengthening of the use of profit sharing and similar agreements to ensure the city benefits when a project succeeds, and working to hold harmless public schools for the use of these development tools.
Given the inequity between what residents pay in real estate taxes and corporations and nonprofits do and don't pay, what is your plan to reduce the disparities in property taxes so that everyone pays their share in keeping the city financially solvent?
The solution in part is to ease the base property tax rate lower, to work eventually to a world where the city does not need to rely to as great a degree on PILOTs and TIFs for development initiatives. Cities such as Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and others have much lower tax rates than Baltimore, and they do not even use discretionary PILOTs for economic development, instead offering tax credits as a matter of course, and extend them to commercial and residential projects. And these cities certainly have not suffered for lack of development and investment in recent years. Working gradually towards that world holds a great deal of promise.
Would you consider increasing taxes on vacant property, while lowering them on occupied property? Can you be specific?
As of 2010, the city had never filed more than 100 receivership cases for vacant houses in a single year. By the fourth year into the Vacants to Value program, the city had filed 1,876. It takes up to three years from the time the city sues an owner to the time a house is renovated and occupied. We should dedicate even more resources to receivership cases, and review carefully the effect that recent legal changes had on the receivership process. If enduring problems remain in converting vacant properties under the new regime, then I would consider additional steps such as higher taxes on vacant property or a land value tax.
Describe your vision for our ten year financial plan?
My overarching view of the fiscal path to success is a combination of (a) a series of cost savings from the more effective delivery of public services (such as through public safety compacts), that allow (b) targeted investments in the city, combined with (c) gradual and responsible property tax deductions. Over time, the combination of lower taxes, improved services and safety and targeted investments will lead to the growth of our tax base and the return of families to Baltimore, the revenue from which should be pushed back into the continuation of the strategy of tax deductions, targeted investments and improved services.
How would you propose compelling the City Schools Administration to do a top-to-bottom overhaul of its operating inefficiencies?
I have deep concerns with our city's current education leadership, not least of all for what has come to light regarding student enrollment numbers. And while recognizing the challenges that concentrated poverty pose to our school system, we have not done enough to act on and replicate lessons learned from our own high performing schools, much less other cities.
The Mayor must play a more active role in ensuring City Schools are meeting the learning and developmental needs of our children. What should that role look like?
First, the Mayor must work with the Governor and the General Assembly to ensure fair and adequate funding for our teachers and our schools. We need to reform the state funding formula that punishes our schools for our city's economic development. The funding formula should be linked to tax revenue and not property assessments.
Second, the Mayor must work with the Board of School Commissioners and CEO to ensure that the school system is managed effectively. Not only is sound management a prerequisite for winning back the support of critics in Baltimore and Annapolis; it is simply fundamental for ensuring our kids have access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive. And neither the Board or the CEO have ready access to data across all of the City government, or can directly align all of the agencies who can contribute to doing right by our children. But the Mayor can and the Mayor must.
Explain the role of charter schools for Baltimore. Do you think charter schools help the City retain families who do have the resources to relocate to other jurisdictions? Please explain.
I believe that charter schools are a part of the equation in Baltimore. But, they are not panaceas. Some perform better than public schools, some perform worse. And so I believe it is important that we create a framework of policies that strikes the appropriate balance and sets the right incentives for success: we need innovation with accountability. And although we should always be examining our laws to see if there are opportunities for improvement or refinement in how they impact our schools, we need to be careful about the changes.
Describe, with specific examples, how you would expand and diversify the city's economy.
Other cities that suffered the disappearance of manufacturing jobs are turning the corner to a new economy through strong leadership, a clear vision, and smart investments from City Hall. There is no substitute for an effective city government that can identify the complex set of challenges that impair job growth; forge the policies and partnerships to address those challenges in areas such as workforce development, tax policy, and business growth; break through the inertia and bureaucracy; and execute on those changes, creating the conditions for an economic renaissance. What is more, the next mayor must make sure that better economic times touch not only a privileged few, but everyone in every corner of the city.
This is my blueprint for bringing jobs back to Baltimore, and building a new economy for all of Baltimore: We need to invest in workers, the pulsing heart of our city and our economy, and ensure that we are giving every resident of Baltimore who wants to work the opportunity to do so. We need to cultivate job-creating companies, and create a climate that encourages entrepreneurship and job growth. We need to invest in the broadband infrastructure that is the essential backbone of the knowledge economy to come. We need a smarter tax policy, one that lowers the burdens on working families and companies while creating the right incentives for growth. And we need to once again make Baltimore a beacon for immigrants, who in so many other cities have been an agent for growth.
The Baltimore Sun this week described my jobs and economy plan as one of the best in the campaign. I invite you to read it at www.embry4baltimore.com.
What is your strategy to boost neighborhood commercial business districts and small businesses? Is there specific red tape to be cut?
Residents with the inspiration for new businesses that would create new jobs – from the new store or restaurant that could anchor a neighborhood to the next biotech start-up that could cure a disease – either languish for lack of capital or assistance, or leave town for other areas where the entrepreneurial ecosystem is far more supportive. We drive away the investment that can help to grow the city. And existing businesses encounter a set of bureaucracies and policies that stifle rather than promote their expansion and growth.
I will build inclusive platforms for entrepreneurship; enact into law zoning reforms for a modern city; move to a true, collaborative model for anchor institutions; make City Hall more responsive to small businesses; strengthening opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses; invest in green jobs and a green economy; and overhaul the city's ethics code so that workers and honest business-people know they can get a fair shake.
One recent survey of thousands of small businesses nationwide placed Baltimore at 86th out of 95 cities for an overall environment conducive to small businesses, citing in particular miserable grades for licensing and regulations. Complaints about delay-ridden and frustrating permit processes and non-responsive city agencies are all too common, as are the reports that other cities in the surrounding area are able to act in a fraction of the time. As Mayor, Elizabeth will move City Hall to a customer service mentality, streamlining permitting and related processes; easing more of the shortsighted 'minor privilege' fees that strangle business owners; and increasing customer service training for city employees.
What would be your plan to address the city's vacant houses and abandoned lots?
Vacants to Value has shown promise in neighborhoods such as Oliver and Reservoir Hill, although its impact has been limited to date by an absence of financing and its confinement only to certain middle-market neighborhoods. And the new Project C.O.R.E. could have a profound impact on the future of the city, but as we know from past redevelopment efforts, the challenge is very much in the execution. For one, it will be essential that Baltimore communities play an active role in the strategic planning to reshape neighborhoods, and that Baltimore workers are able to play a role in the demolition and related work that follows.
But we must go farther than only these initiatives. As Mayor, I will restore the dollar house program, a once successful initiative in Baltimore that sold vacant houses for $1 and loaned money to the owners for renovations. I will expand the use of community land trusts, which empower local nonprofits to take control of vacant buildings and empty land, develop the property, and then retain a stake for the long term benefit of the neighborhood. I will work to expand the Healthy Neighborhoods capital pool, which seeks to grow neighborhoods by offering below-market loans in areas plagued by disinvestment. And I will leverage the 21st Century School Building Plan to promote school-centric neighborhood development.
What do you propose to do with city owned buildings, such as schools, offices, public works, yards, etc. that are no longer needed or in service?
We need a multi-stakeholder, community-based conversation about what to do with old public buildings. And the possibilities differ depending on the building in question. But to take only one example, a number of city public schools are due to be vacated under the 21st Century Schools program. They hold endless possibilities to be repurposed for community activities, professional development programs, and locations for charter schools. Likewise, as we demolish vacant properties and redevelop communities where blight exists, we have to commit to the creation of permanent green space. Parks, community gardens, and playgrounds enhance quality of life and increase property values. Too often communities invest time and resources into vacant lots, only to have them sold down the line by the City for redevelopment. By transferring eligible properties to a community land bank so that communities are not subject to losing a garden or park that they have worked to create, the City will encourage neighborhoods to invest in their vacant lots.
Which City agencies are in the greatest need of reform and what specific reforms to do you have in mind?
I have grave concerns about the leadership in the Housing Authority. From the sex for repairs scandal to deplorable living conditions in public housing, and from the quiet elimination of the agency's Inspector General to reports of retaliation against whistleblowers, the Authority has shown a lack of leadership, urgency and oversight. Housing Commissioner Graziano must step down.
Likewise, for too long, both City and State leadership have abdicated their responsibility for the students in Baltimore City Schools, instead pointing to the CEO and School Board for blame. It is time for that approach to end. As Mayor I will be a hands on partner with BCPS and its CEO, and deepen the connection and support between City Hall and North Avenue in important ways, including: (1) ensuring that the BCPS CEO participates meaningfully in Mayoral senior staff meetings; (2) appointing a Deputy Mayor for Education, with an office in North Avenue; and (3) using the persuasive power of the Mayor to recruit the best educational talent in the country to help fix the broken school system.
What would be your first priority to reduce crime in the city? Please specifically address violent and property crimes separately. What administrative reforms that you would prioritize for the police department?
Baltimore is, once again, one of the most violent cities in America. This is a tragedy but also a truth. And that truth, we all must fight to change.
We must move to a different strategy, one that replaces a high arrest policy that burdens entire communities with best practices and proven approaches to target the most dangerous people and places that drive the violence on our streets. We need to rebuild the community's trust in the responsibility of the police to protect and serve us all. We need to bring an end, at long last, to the misguided and inhumane war on drugs that has criminalized rather than treated addiction, and led to the mass incarceration of Baltimore citizens, fueling for too long the break-up of families and the erosion of entire neighborhoods. We need to provide a network of support for at-risk juveniles while they are young so they do not commit acts of violence once they are older. And we need to offer an open hand to ex-offenders when they leave prison so they do not revert once again to a life of crime.
Different neighborhoods have different needs: in some areas, murders and shootings plague the streets, while in others, burglaries, robberies, and street assaults are the primary areas of concern. And even within particular neighborhoods, it is specific corners and buildings are often the hot spots for violent crime. Elizabeth will deploy micro-targeted, geography-focused approaches to combating violence that are informed by both community experience and law enforcement intelligence.
Often, our citizens see the arrests of violent criminals, but not what follows. Elizabeth will hold her administration open and accountable to the public, making data available to the public not only on the incidence of crime, but also on what percentages of felonies have been 'solved' by way of charge and then what the ultimate outcomes of those charges are by tracking the case through to resolution. As Mayor, Elizabeth will have effective mechanisms, including a revitalized CitiStat, to ensure that she and her senior staff have direct oversight over the administrative and operational work of the police department.
Finally, all too often, we have done wrong by law enforcement and our communities by setting incentives that distort officers' decision-making and push them away from quality policing. We have rewarded law enforcement for increasing the number of arrests, rather than evaluating them on the basis of more important benchmarks such as reduction in crime, outcomes in cases, and increase in community satisfaction. As Mayor, Elizabeth will hold the police to metrics that actually promote community policing and a safer Baltimore.
What will you do about Baltimore's aging infrastructure from old sewers to bridges and roads and water lines?
An investment in the city's infrastructure is an investment in the future of the city. And these investments are long overdue. As Mayor, I will ensure that the sewer system repairs are completed in a timely fashion, and will work with the Federal Government and the State to ensure that funding for transportation infrastructure (including for roads and rail infrastructure) is fully allocated to the city, and improve transparency for city infrastructure projects and commission a study of cost overruns on these projects. And we can invest in the next generation of Baltimore infrastructure for a new economy -- high quality, affordable broadband available to every corner of the city.
What specific strategies will you use to increase the City's population, and specifically to attract and retain such expanding population groups as millennials and immigrants?
To attract and keep families in Baltimore requires solutions to the entrenched problems that face the City. We need to end the bloodshed on our streets, jumpstart our economy, rationalize our taxes, and expand public transportation and increase home ownership. But we also need to once again make Baltimore a true beacon for immigrants and refugees -- so many other cities have rebounded from population loss and experienced an economic renaissance through embracing New Americans. Finally, we need to do a much better job of selling all of the incredible success stories of Baltimore, all of the reasons Baltimore is a wonderful place to call a home right now. Taken together, this will once again make Baltimore a destination for families.