Along with the usual (and unusual) candidates, voters will be asked to decide how much money to lend several venerable institutions, with taxpayers as the co-signers. And there are several questions of policy wrapped up as charter amendments. First, the money.
Questions A-G are all dollar amounts to be lent to or spent on particular causes. These are General Obligation bonds that the city (or more accurately its chosen bond counsel) will sell to investors in or about January 2015.
G.O. bonds are a tradition in Baltimore and many other jurisdictions. The good news is that borrowing costs have never been lower. The benchmark interest rates on both tax-exempt and taxed municipal bonds are in the 3 percent range. And Baltimore’s bond rating is also higher than its been in decades, meaning we pay lower interest than we used to. Last summer, both Fitch and Moodys increased Baltimore’s rating to their third-highest. That means Baltimore taxpayers can get cheaper money than taxpayers in a lot of other places.
Baltimore voters have not rejected a bond issue on the ballot in more than 30 years, says Laurie Feinberg, assistant director of the department of planning.
“It was a parking garage, I think,” she says. More common are the landslide victories the measures have enjoyed in the past half decade. In 2010, for example, Question H, to lend $1 million to the National Aquarium, passed with just under 75 percent of the vote. About the same vote went to create the city’s Department of General Services by charter amendment in 2008.
The total of bond requests this year is $130 million, $30 million more than two years ago, about $10 million more than 2004’s $120 million in borrowing.
Question A: Lends $34,000,000 to the city for schools
This is part of the first $1 billion of a 10-year school rebuilding plan that is estimated to cost more than $2 billion. Called 21st Century Buildings, the idea is to borrow the money and pay it back using the state and local school buildings budget over the next 30 years or so. The amount to be borrowed on this ballot question is the same as was proposed (and passed) in 2012. In 2000 the amount was $24 million which, in inflation-adjusted terms, is about the same as this year’s request.
Question B: Lends $47,000,000 to the city for recreation and parks and public facilities
This question combines Park and Recreation funding with public buildings, including municipal office buildings, courthouses, fire stations, multi-purpose centers, and libraries. It covers all renovation, repair, and acquisition of new facilities. It can be used to buy trees, too. The two line items were separate in 2012, with $8 million for parks and $17 million for public buildings, for a total of $25 million. Still, this year’s ask is almost double that, an amount that makes sense to anyone who’s been in the Circuit Court building.
Question C: Lends $47,000,000 to the city for community and economic development
Earmarked for “various projects and programs related to improving cultural life and promotion of tourism,” and also for “community, commercial, and industrial economic development programs,” this is another line item that combines what used to be put to two separate votes. In 2012 the figure was $24 million for “community” and $15.8 million for “economic” development, for a total of $39.8 million. So this is a $7 million increase from that. But it’s considerably less, inflation-adjusted, than voters approved in 2000 for these purposes. In that year it was $26 million for “community” and $18.5 million for “economic” development, for a total of $44.5 million—which would be $61 million in 2014 dollars.
Question D: Lends $400,000 to the Baltimore Museum of Art
Question E: Lends $400,000 to the Walters Art Museum
Question F: Lends $400,000 to Port Discovery Children’s Museum
Question G: Lends $800,000 to the National Aquarium
Depending on the year, certain Baltimore nonprofit corporations get taxpayer-backed loans to improve or repair their buildings and other facilities. In 2012 the BMA got $500,000 and the Walters got $300,000, while the Zoo and the Science Center each got $200,000. Port Discovery and the Aquarium did not get loans in that election.
This year the BMA says it will use the money to add sprinklers to three exhibition galleries, dining spaces, and the Meyerhoff Auditorium. The aquarium is going to renovate its second-level exhibit space and add “interactive components” to its Maryland Watershed exhibit, which will “spill out into the Waterfront Park and Harbor-side areas.”
Question H: Charter Amendment—granting City Council an independent counsel
This independent counsel would not be an investigator but just a lawyer that works for the council as a whole. The new position would pay at least as much as City Solicitor George Nilson’s $107,000, though some on the council thought it ought to be more like $150,000. The council wants its own lawyer because some members think Nilson, who reports to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, sometimes shades his legal opinions to help her politically. Nilson denies this, and on one of the issues where there was disagreement—Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s push for an ordinance requiring certain city contractors to hire city residents to fill more than half of their job openings—Nilson’s opinion that the law is unconstitutional put the mayor in an awkward position. She ended up letting it become law without her signature. On another issue—the question of regular audits for city agencies—Nilson helped weaken the requirement, some councilmembers said. The mayor did not want the extra audits and did all she could to defeat the bill without publicly admitting it. Whether a second legal opinion will actually strengthen the council is an open question.
Question I: Charter Amendment—multi-year collective bargaining
This would grant the city employees labor unions, including the AFL-CIO Council 67, City Union of Baltimore, and Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police, the same rights as the firefighters and fire officers’ unions got in 2006. The contracts cannot extend beyond the current mayor’s administration. The finance department notes that hiring outside legal counsel to negotiate with the unions costs money, and that two or three-year deals will provide better predictability to both lawmakers and city employees.
Question J: Charter Amendment—transfer of powers and duties
This would hand over some administrative chores regarding streets and rights of way that are now handled by the Department of General Services back to the Department of Transportation. DOT already maintains all the plat records and does the permitting for new rights of way as requested by developers, so returning its ability to approve them would streamline things and cut down on duplication of effort in the bureaucracy. So says both the DOT and the DGS, at least. So you see how democracy makes things incrementally better over time.
Question 1: Constitutional Amendment—transportation trust fund, use of funds (amending Article III by adding Section 53 to the Maryland Constitution)
This would create a “lockbox” for the state’s transportation fund. Basically, the tolls and gas taxes you pay are supposed to be spent on better roads and bridges and mass transit. But when times are tight the governor often borrows from the fund in order to avoid laying off school teachers or cutting social programs. In the past 30 years, governors have borrowed $574 million from the fund, according to Barry Rascovar, a political columnist and business consultant. Something like $325 million has been paid back, with more payments coming. So the practice doesn’t cripple road maintenance, but it does delay some projects, and that can lead to layoffs of construction workers. Last year, in exchange for allowing an increase in the gas tax, Republican legislators got this provision on the ballot. It will still allow governors to borrow from the transportation fund, but only if they declare a “fiscal emergency” and get at least 60 percent of the legislators to go along.
Supporters say this gives voters more transparency while protecting the integrity of the budget process. Opponents say it will make it too hard for future governors to do the decent and necessary thing when the next recession hits.
Question 2: Constitutional Amendment—special election to fill vacancy in office of chief executive officer or county executive (amending Article XI-A, Section 3 and Article XVII, Section 2 of the Maryland Constitution)
If she ever gets indicted or otherwise can no longer serve in office, should the mayor be replaced by a city council vote? Or should the voters get to choose in a special election? That’s Question 2, in a nutshell. It arose after last year’s controversial appointment of Laura Neuman to replace the disgraced John Leopold as Anne Arundel County Executive. The council appointment saves the money that would be spent on an election, because democracy costs money. How much freedom do you want? Vote yes for a special election, no for an appointment by the council.