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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen10:51 amApr 25, 20120

On the radio, mayor defends Grand Prix, EWOs, developer tax breaks

A feisty Stephanie Rawlings-Blake does the Steiner show.

Above: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawings-Blake, at the Board of Estimates’ 2012 Taxpayers’ Night earlier this month.

Appearing last night on a radio call-in show, an implacable Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake parried questions from people criticizing city contracting practices, tax breaks for developers and city spending for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Her composure cracked, though, when host Marc Steiner pressed her on the troubled car race, saying that since “restaurateurs complained bitterly” about empty tables during last year’s Labor Day weekend event, shouldn’t the race – “if they do come back” this year – be forced to not provide food?

“Yes and hopefully this time, the media won’t scare the heck out of people [about] coming downtown,” Rawlings-Blake said, on Steiner’s show on WEAA 88.9 FM.

“You could have zigzag-crawled down 83 during that weekend because so many people – they were scared! The media scared the heck out of people [saying] ‘Don’t go downtown it’s going to be such a mess.’”

Steiner tried to interject a question at this point and Rawlings-Blake cut him off.

“No, you want to blame the Grand Prix! Take some responsibility!” she snapped. “You-all sat there and talked about how bad it was going to be and then said ‘Omigod, nobody came!’”

The mayor had plenty of opportunities during the hour-long show to dwell on her administration’s accomplishments, on crime (“we were able to get the homicide rate the lowest since 1977”) and on urban gardening (“Baltimore city was the first city in the country to hire a food policy director.”)

“Can I talk about food deserts?” she asked Steiner, describing her administration’s “virtual supermarket” program that, working with the Enoch Pratt Library, makes fresh produce available to residents in neighborhoods without much of it otherwise available.

Caller: Skeptical About “Extra Work Orders”

But at many points Rawlings-Blake was on the defensive, in one case on an issue that has been the subject of Brew reporting for months, the “extra work order.”

The EWO – Brew shorthand for the phenomenon we’ve sort of branded – is a contracting mechanism whereby the city Board of Estimates awards additional work (or sometimes grants a cost overrun) on an existing contract without prior board approval and without competitive bidding.

Caller “Melissa” said she was concerned that “these dribs and drabs over many years” really add up.

“And when we see extra work orders that exceed 100 percent of the original budget,” the caller continued, “I really, as a citizen of this city, am skeptical that all those extra work orders are really needed.”

“That’s Why We Do Audits”

Here’s the entirety of the mayor’s response on EWOs:

“So I’ve had concerns about extra work orders since I first convened the Board of Estimates as President of City Council.

“That’s something that concerned me. And that’s why we do audits, we track who’s putting in the extra work orders,” she said. “How much over the original estimate are these work orders amounting to? It can be a problem and abuse, if you’re not tracking it, can happen.

“So, you know, while we certainly don’t want extra work orders, you know, there’s a process. You don’t just put a work order in and get paid. An extra work order has to be verified. And we also balance it against what you said you were going to do the work for and see if you have a history of you know what we say are questionable work orders.”

“The Thing That Really Burns Me Up”

Steiner asked Rawlings-Blake about another topic that has prompted criticism, the tax subsidies, known as TIFs and PILOTs, that the city has granted primarily to downtown and waterfront developments.

“It’s not just downtown. And that’s the thing that really burns me up when people want to talk about TIFs and PILOTs they talk about just downtown,” she said, going on to cite subsidies used to develop Mondawmin Mall and Belvedere Square: “things that are outside of downtown that provide anchors and help us build communities.”

To move some projects in the city forward, she said, “We need to create some incentives and the upside of those incentives are we get taxes in the future, we also get opportunity to create jobs and to strengthen our neighborhoods .”

She then brought up downtown Baltimore’s Westside, where the city is proposing to give a PILOT subsidy – The Brew estimates its cost over 20 years at $35 million – to the  developers of the long-stalled Lexington Square project on the so-called “Superblock.”

“We’re working really hard to transform the Westside and if that means that we need to create incentives to spur development, so we can get the type of amenities we need to complement what’s already there, I think it would be irresponsible not to look to create a win-win situation so we can get these properties moving,” she said.

“I have a great partnership with Dr. Perman from University of Maryland at Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake continued.

“We’re working hard and if you’ve been down there, you’ve already seen evidence of our partnership,” she said. “We’ve got a great public safety partnership, we’ve brought in social workers and drug treatment workers that are helping us with individuals that are suffering from addiction that are in that community. We have an economic development plan which we are working on.”

Looking for “Quality Development”

Steiner pressed Rawlings-Blake on the subsidies, coming at a time when the city is proposing to shut some public pools in poor neighborhoods and close down recreation centers as part of a consolidation and privatization plan.

“Why are we not profit sharing with these companies,” Steiner asked. “How do we know they don’t have the money to take care of this themselves,  these are billion dollar corporations?”

“I think we do, in some of the deals, we do do some profit-sharing,” she replied. “I think you’re right we look for how we get the best out of the deal for the city and that’s what we look for. We are not look to give away the shop, we’re looking to create partnerships so we can get the development that we want, quality development, as well as benefit the city in the long run.”

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