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Biggest Issue In Mayoral Election? Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!
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September 9, 2011
The Baltimore city primary is fast approaching. The mayoral candidates have been busy touting their ideas to lower an unemployment rate that’s the highest in the state. WYPR’s Matt Purdy spoke to the campaigns and filed this report.
On Monday, President Barack Obama gave a Labor Day speech in Detroit.
“So, these are tough times for working Americans. They’re even tougher for Americans who are looking for work –- and a lot of them have been looking for work for a long time.”
That’s something Baltimore resident Roskey Johnson knows all too well.
Reporter: “How long have you been looking for work?”
Roskey: “About three years now.”
He worked in marketing, then landscaping, and roofing, but the roofing jobs dried up.
“Now, I’m in a program, you know, so I don’t get out here and use drugs like I was. I was out here using drugs and now I’m trying to stay focused. But, I need work too because if I don’t have no work, I’ve got too much idle time on my hands.”
As of July, Baltimore city’s unemployment rate was a little over 11 percent, two percentage points higher than the national average. That’s about the same as it was when candidate and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake replaced then-Mayor Sheila Dixon a year and a half ago. But, Rawlings-Blake says her approach to economic development isn’t the problem.
“I think if the unemployment situation in Baltimore was drastically different than what’s happening at other major cities and across this country I would say it’s not working. I think anyone that wants to blame the joblessness rate on the mayor of Baltimore is very shortsighted. We are in a great recession. All of us are trying to grow out of that and we’re certainly doing our best to put policies in place to encourage job growth.”
“I think the reality is that while there’s little that we can do to impact kind of the world economy or the national economy, there’s a heck of a lot that we can do to impact our local economy.”
That’s candidate and former City Planner Otis Rolley. Rolley released his economic development and job creation plan last week in front of Darker Than Blue, a café on Greenmount Avenue in the Waverly neighborhood. WYPR asked Rolley how his plan would overcome the national recession.
“It overcomes it actually by producing, by reinvesting in terms of the education of our adults. It overcomes it by providing more access to capital in ways that is not happening at the national level and not happening at the state level.”
Rolley hit on a common theme among the candidates: development of the city’s unskilled workers.
“Clearly, workforce development is the number one issue in Baltimore city.”
That’s Richard Clinch, Director of Economic Research at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute.
“The general population has a lower level of educational attainment, lower levels of workforce participation, higher levels of what are called ‘discouraged workers’ who have left the workforce.”
According to the US Census Bureau, 25 percent of Baltimoreans aged 25 and older don’t have a high school degree and 75 percent lack a college degree.
“Everybody doesn’t have to go to college.”
That’s candidate and State Senator Catherine Pugh. She also says the city needs to revamp its job training efforts.
“Often times when we’re doing training, people can’t really get a job based on the training that they’re receiving. So, I’m going to overhaul the Office of Employment Development. I’m going to make sure that when we’re contracting to outside groups and organizations and companies that we’re providing the kind of training that really leads people to jobs.”
Rawlings-Blake says despite two budget crises, she has kept job-training programs fully funded.
“I made sure even though we had a combined budget deficit of almost 200 million dollars that we fully funded the city’s one-stop career center to make sure that our residents, our city citizens, Baltimore city residents were prepared and trained for jobs, that is a priority for me and I’ve put the money there to prove it.”
Mayoral Candidate and Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway, Sr., has perhaps been the most vocal on the issue of job creation in Baltimore city. Conaway did not respond to an interview request, but he has made the focus of his campaign clear at recent mayoral candidate forums.
“The three biggest things that we need is (sic) jobs, jobs, and more jobs.”
“Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs, jobs, and more jobs, that’s what we need to straighten out this city.”
Conaway has proposed expanding the Howard Street rail tunnel to allow double-stacked rail cars to pass through. He has said the project could create 15,000 jobs. But, he has been less specific about how such a project, which would likely cost billions of dollars, would be financed.
“That’s a great, that’s a great idea but you’ve got to come up with the money to pay for it.”
That’s Jody Landers, a candidate and former executive at the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. He has built his campaign platform around lowering property taxes across the board, which he says would spur economic development in the city.
“We have to become more competitive as a city and with a tax rate that is more than double what it is in all the surrounding counties, we can’t compete effectively.”
Landers has proposed a one-third cut in the property tax rate over the next four to six years. Taking a page from the District of Columbia, he would raise the rate for vacant and blighted properties.
“So, you’re creating an economic incentive for property owners to either invest in their property, put it back into productive use or divest it, sell it.”
Which Landers said would grow the tax base. Economist Richard Clinch isn’t so sure lowering the property tax will bring people back into the city.
“Clearly, the property tax is an important issue. It is significantly higher than the county averages. But, changing it won’t bring back people into the city necessarily. There are other issues of crime and public education that are probably bigger barriers than property taxes as to the movement of people back in.”
For the unemployed who already live in Baltimore, Roskey Johnson has some advice.
“I see it bright in the future. It’s just you know… patience. You know, we’re in a downfall right now. So, while we’re in a downfall, everybody just got to tighten up their belt and hope for the best.”
As Baltimoreans cast their votes for mayor on Tuesday, many will be keeping in mind Baltimore’s high unemployment rate and what the candidates would do to lower it.
I’m Matt Purdy, reporting from Baltimore, for 88-1, WYPR.
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