1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
I bring a wealth of experience to my campaign for the 9th District City Council seat. As an educator, small business owner, and community association president, I have gained a unique perspective on the challenges facing the city and I have a record of creative solutions. After graduating from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania with a BA in anthropology and secondary education, I moved to Baltimore in the fall of 2002 to accept a teaching position in the Baltimore City Public School System. For the next four years, I taught at William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore. While at Lemmel, I co-created the Leadership Academy for troubled and at-risk youth, which partnered with local businesses to give students a different learning environment. I have continued to mentor several former students and take very seriously the role of mentor and educator to the youth in this city. My wife and I have opened our home to several mentees, providing them with a stable home and positive environment until they can find a better path and way in life.
Through this experience I realized that I had a passion not only for serving the students of West Baltimore, but also the larger community. To help realize this passion, I ran for and was elected as president of the Union Square Association for five consecutive years. As president, I inherited an association with a strong history, but a small membership. During my tenure, membership in the association grew from 20 members to more than 100 members representing the racial, economic, and age diversity found within our community. Association members have worked together to help lower crime rates, which have dropped to levels comparable to more affluent neighborhoods in the city. A private, city, and state partnership enabled the city to pledge $350,000 to restore the park in historic Union Square. A campaign to give away trashcans and recycling bins educated local citizens about managing and maintaining a clean, healthy neighborhood. With proper community mapping and planning, we have reduced our vacancy rate from more than 40% to less than 25%. The results of my leadership demonstrate the positive changes that are possible in our neighborhoods.
In addition to my work with the neighborhood association, I created a small, local business called Urban Space Developers that purchases and renovates vacant houses. My business partner and I have completed more than 20 renovations, most of them in West Baltimore. My business uses many local suppliers and sub-contractors, which perpetuates a cycle of growth and helps to sustain other healthy businesses. With a focus on green building and innovative design, Urban Space Developers prides itself on being able to attract people from all over the state to West Baltimore to build back up its communities and the city's tax rolls. My employees are local men, many of whom are ex-offenders and could not find employment elsewhere. These men are some of the smartest and most dedicated employees I have ever had and I have gained a deep understanding of their struggles when it comes to finding meaningful employment.
I have lived in the Union Square neighborhood with my wife for several years. We met teaching in the Baltimore City Public Schools and she remains a teacher in the system. My record of results and my experience as a business owner, community association leader, and educator make me a strong candidate to confront the issues facing our district.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
I want to serve on the council because the 9th district needs a strong advocate and a voice that is willing to speak up for the forgotten people in our communities. Our district lacks a strong leader with a concrete plan to change the economic and social indicators that are holding our citizens back. As a councilperson, I would have voted no to the mayor's FY 2011 budget and advocate that we spend more of our city's budget on investing in our children and our city's future. This year, despite budget shortfalls, funding for policing climbed to $356.9 million, while the budget for our recreation centers dropped to $10.2 million. This type of budget disparity highlights how backwards our priorities are and demonstrates the need for strong leaders on the council who are willing to stand up to some of the long-time, entrenched political establishments in our city. If I am elected to city council, I am going there with the intention to lead. Under our current government structure, we have a powerful mayoral system of government. Because of that power, city council members rarely challenge the mayor when it comes to passing his/her budget or any major mayor-directed initiatives. The system is set up for people to make nice, pass the mayor's budget, support his/her ideas, and remain in office. I do not agree with this philosophy. We will continue to destroy our city if we maintain the status quo. We will not be able to make the great changes we so desperately need. I must go to city hall to stick up for our city and its residents without thought of re-election. I cannot negotiate on certain principles, nor do I intend to. Too often, as we have seen in Washington, when the "nice guy" tries to negotiate with the "bully," the bully ends up winning and not giving anything back to the people. Our city is in such need of repair that I cannot go to city hall with the intention of maintaining the status quo. I must go there with a purpose: to be bold enough to state what has to be said and demand more for our citizens. Leaders do not spoon feed us what we want to hear. They push and challenge us to become better and to change beliefs.
The serious issues confronting the 9th district have to be dealt with holistically, so my top priorities are tightly interconnected. Reducing crime cannot be achieved without reducing the number of vacant houses. Better schools cannot be achieved without getting more families to move back into the city to take a vested interest in our children's educations. My top priorities are the main components of my four-part plan: reducing property taxes, reducing crime, reducing the number of vacant houses, and creating jobs and opportunities for our adults, ex-offenders, and youth. The success of each of these initiatives is interconnected and over time will change the 9th district. The details of each part of my plan can be found throughout the remainder of this questionnaire and on my website (www.voteforchristaylor.com).
3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you advocate for to improve public safety in the city?
No. Baltimore City continues to have an extremely high crime rate. Many of our citizens do not feel safe in their own neighborhoods. The city reports over 200 homicides each year and crimes such as burglaries and car break-ins reduce our citizens' quality of life. To deal with these issues, Baltimore is currently making over 60,000 arrests a year. This is a reactive approach. We must use proactive strategies that assist the police and provide our citizens with better alternatives in order to reduce our crime rate throughout the district.
As Union Square's neighborhood association president, I worked with my board and neighbors to use a proactive approach to fight crime in our neighborhood. Union Square has seen a drastic reduction in crime and has not had a homicide since May of 2008. I have been a teacher and a mentor to at-risk youth and my small business employs ex-offenders from our district. This range of experiences has given me a unique perspective and because of this my plan includes a multi-faceted approach that is outlined below:
• Dedicate more cops to walking our neighborhoods. Baltimore has one of the largest police forces in the country per capita with 3,800 employees, 3,000 of whom are sworn officers. Only 52% of those officers are in uniform on any given day contrasted to the national average of 60-64%. The rest are in undercover squads and special units. My plan is to reallocate resources in order to increase by 10% the number of officers in uniform. This would make available an additional 300 uniformed police officers and would provide more than one officer for every neighborhood in Baltimore City. This allows the police to build relationships and trust within the communities, reconnect with the population and learn about their concerns, and acts as a natural deterrent to stop crime before it starts.
• Establish additional healthy spaces and safe activities for our youth. We currently have only 55 recreation centers that are operational down from over 200 at one point. These centers are consistently underfunded and lack quality programs. We have also reduced the number of summer jobs for our youth from 7,000 in 2010 to only 5,000 in 2011. We must be willing to reallocate some of the resources we spend to lock up our children and instead use those resources to create healthy spaces and to better fund the programs and activities that help to stop our children from turning to crime in the first place.
• Increase outreach to our reentry and at-risk populations. There are currently 5,700 citizens in Baltimore that are serving time in prison. 1,032 or roughly 18% are from the 9th district and will most likely return here. We must reach out to this population. I plan to have staff who will work with me to identify the reentry and at-risk population, get out into our neighborhoods and prisons to meet them, and help provide them with the tools necessary to become productive citizens. Through my business, I have developed many relationships within the ex-offender population. Two of my current employees, Rodney and Kevin, grew up in the 9th district and have been in and out of the prison system. Both are now productive members of our district and will work with me to continue to get more of our young men off the streets.
• Establish a truly independent internal investigation unit. The more doors I knock on and people I talk to, I am more convinced of the need to establish more transparency within the police force in order to rebuild the broken trust between the police and our communities. Citizens must believe that our police force is being held accountable for misbehavior and inappropriate use of force and an independent investigative unit would provide that.
• Introduce a bill to prohibit private employers from discrimination on the basis of a person's arrest or conviction record. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 92% of employers did some kind of pre-employment background check in 2010. If we leave our ex-offenders with no options to provide for themselves or their families, many will go right back to the streets and continue to commit crimes. If we can create meaningful employment opportunities for ex-offenders our number of repeat offenders will decrease.
4. Do you support the recent reforms in the Baltimore City school system? Do you believe any changes are needed in the schools' governance structure (such as direct mayoral control or an elected school board)?
As a former educator and someone whose wife still teaches in the city, I feel very strongly about education. Some of the recent reforms align with our hopes of creating a high-quality education system that recruits the best and brightest teachers to our city. The new teacher contract (when fully implemented) could provide the financial incentives to help us recruit and retain high performing teachers. Giving more autonomy to principals helps them to take control of their own school budgets and make important staffing and programming decisions with the input of current staff and parents. In addition, with the creation of schools of choice and the development of several charter schools, parents can choose to place their kids within schools that they feel are successful. This provides a good incentive for our city schools to improve and raise their own standards and performance levels.
However, many of these initiatives have a downside. The charter school movement leaves many of our neighborhood schools with poor parent support and a lack of community engagement. We need to re-engage our community members in the schools and increase everyone's involvement. Charter schools are often decided by a lottery, which leaves many deserving children with no choice but to return to an underperforming school. In addition, many of the city's charter schools have not proven to be any more effective at raising student achievement than our city schools.
In terms of the schools' governance structure, I believe that our current system must be reformed and brought back under mayoral control. I understand the desire to have an elected school board, but Baltimore City elections have notoriously low voter turnout (as do school board elections across the country) and the elected board may only represent a small group of voters and their interests. An elected school board may also lead to a lack of diversity on the board or a voting block on the board from only one area of the city.
To increase stability at the top of our school system and to ensure the vision of the city schools' CEO and its mayor are realized, the mayor should be able to appoint the school board, but I believe that we should strengthen the criteria for appointment. Currently, the only requirements are that a person must be 18 years or older and be a resident of the city. We must bring together all of the stakeholders and develop more detailed requirements for the board, such as mandating that a certain number of the board members must have children who attend city schools. In addition, the board should represent the geographic diversity of the city and appointments should reflect all areas of the city.
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
I fully support the findings written in the report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland Foundation Education Reform Project, "Buildings for Academic Excellence," which has outlined a vision and various options to address the deficient school facilities in Baltimore City. As a former teacher, I remember too many days where kids were sent home from school because of inadequate heating or cooling. My wife's students sometimes type entire essays on their cell phones because they are without a proper place to type and use the Internet. Our district's leadership must be fully committed to advocating for and supporting increased funding for our school buildings. The ACLU's proposal suggests a combination of local, state, and federal solutions to address our school renovation needs, including increasing the city's borrowing limit to 3-4% of the assessed property tax base; finding new, local, innovative funding sources; and advocating that state funds for school facilities be distributed based on need.
As stated by the ACLU, to address the school maintenance budget shortfalls, we must come up with new and innovative ways to fund these projects. I propose the following:
• Implement a program called PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to help fund our schools, recreation centers, and activities for youth and families. 25% of our real estate is owned by non-profit organizations, which means that the city does not receive property tax revenue from a large portion of its properties. The program would ask large, well-funded non-profits to partner with the city and make some form of payment in lieu of taxes that we could earmark for school buildings or activities tailored to youth. Through this program, non-profits would be able to continue to help the city's residents and the city would receive much needed earmarked money for the renovation of our schools.
• Put pressure on the state to allocate the money to the school systems around the state in a more needs-based and effective way. Right now, Baltimore City receives a similar amount of money as the more wealthy districts around the state. The state must create a new system for the distribution of state funds that takes into consideration the needs and limited financial means of each district. Montgomery County schools have the ability to provide much more local revenue for the improvement or renovation of their schools than Baltimore City does. The state must be pressured to change its policy for allocating its funds.
• Propose a commuter tax. A commuter tax would increase our tax revenue without additionally taxing our residents. Our commuters benefit from the use of our public services and infrastructure, and increased revenue would help our city pay for these services. For example, Philadelphia residents pay a 3.928% wage tax as residents and non-residents pay a 3.4985% tax for wages earned in the city.
However, with all of the studies and programs that have been implemented throughout our nation's cities, none of them has solved the urban education crisis. To solve our district's education woes, we must look at more than just our schools. Each child is in school for roughly seven to eight hours a day, but outside of school, our kids are surrounded by negative influences and factors, such as high crime neighborhoods, parents who have lost their jobs, and vacant houses up and down their blocks. You cannot change the schools without changing the social and economic indicators that play into our failing schools. Given the limitations of the seat I am seeking, I must focus on what I can control in our district. I will continue to support and advocate for more funding for schools, but I must also focus my attention on the problems that absorb our students as soon as they leave the school building.
6. Property taxes have become a major issue in this year's election. Do you believe the city's tax rate needs to be cut? If so, by how much, and what steps would you take to keep the city's budget in balance while lowering the rate?
We must reduce our city's property tax rates if we plan to attract young families to our district and our city. Baltimore City's current property tax rate is 3 times the Maryland state average and 2 times as much as Baltimore County's. Because we can't compete with surrounding counties, we are losing countless taxpayers each year who flee the city. In the last census, we lost another 30,000 people. Because 38% of our city's revenue comes from property taxes, we cannot immediately drop the rates to meet the state average without decimating city services. Our city's budget is cut to the bone after several years of declining revenue and increased costs so we cannot eliminate this source of income overnight. We need a long-term approach that sends the right signal to our residents. My plan includes:
• A 2 to 5% reduction in the property tax rate each year over the next 15-20 years. A gradual reduction will show that the city is serious about reducing property tax rates, which will spur investment and encourage people to buy and continue to live in the city.
The additional investment in the city will make up for the gradual reduction of revenue from the decrease in the property tax rate. The size of our annual reduction can be slowed or accelerated based on how much additional revenue is generated. The value of this plan is that people will begin to trust that the city is serious about dealing with its tax rate problem. As people begin to move back into the city and choose to stay within the city's borders, we will increase our revenue without decimating the budget and its services and programs. The reality is that short-term revenue sources, such as the beverage tax or the increase in parking fines, have not worked and have placed an unfair burden on average citizens. We must bring in more people and business in order to generate more money and resources.
7. The city has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. If that trend continues, what top priorities would you protect from cuts? In what areas would you pursue spending reductions?
With a $120 million budget shortfall in 2011, new and innovative ways to increase our revenue are critical, but we cannot always place these burdens on the average citizen (bottle tax, parking fines, etc.). As stated in other sections of this questionnaire, I would propose a PILOT tax on our large and well-funded non-profits and examine a commuter tax as additional sources of revenue to help fund our schools, recreation centers, and programs for our most needy citizens.
However, a look at ways to cut spending must coincide with revenue increases. I support the mayor and city council's start at examining the way we fund pensions for our police and firefighters. This reform will begin to save the city money over the next several years and is a critical piece for getting our budget problems under control. I also support the introduction of "Outcome Budgeting, " which requires city agencies to compete for funding based on efficiency and demonstrated results.
Protecting funding for education would be a top priority of mine. The more we invest in our kids upfront, the less we will have to invest in them in the future through prison costs or social programs. Currently, public safety uses over one quarter of our city's expenditures. I would have to consider cuts to this portion of our budget. $356.9 million is spent on policing in this city and we have one of the largest police forces per capita in the country. I would like to cut a portion of their budget each year for the next several years, scaling back to a number closer to $300 million.
8. Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade. What would you do to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents?
Unemployment and lack of opportunity are two of the biggest challenges confronting the 9th district. Many of our citizens are out of work and lack the opportunity to provide for their families. A high unemployment rate is directly connected to the despair and poverty prevalent in the 9th district. To improve the quality of life in our district, we must create jobs.
To create jobs, I plan to support our local and small businesses and encourage the development of new ones. 2/3 of all new jobs are created by small businesses. I have seen firsthand the benefits that come from owning a small business in the 9th district. I hire local workers, address local needs, and keep the money generated from the business in the community. We have to stop spending our time and resources catering to big corporations and instead we must encourage our business owners to grow their businesses and generate wealth that will stay in our communities. My plan includes the following strategies to help spur much needed growth in our district:
• Direct government contracts to our district by expanding the number of businesses that are HUBZone certified. The 9th district is a federally designated HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zone), which means that our small businesses can gain preferential access to government contracts. With millions of federal dollars flowing through our state, especially with the growth associated with the Base Closure and Realignment Committee (BRAC), the 9th district can promote economic development by connecting to HUBZone opportunities. To be eligible for HUBZone work, businesses have to hire at least 35% of their workers from the HUBZone and have a principal office within the zone. My plan is to help the district's small businesses become HUBZone certified and attract new businesses that want to take advantage of HUBZone benefits. These new businesses would be required to hire local workers and maintain an office within the district, which will help to spur new growth and development.
• Develop long-term economic redevelopment within the 9th district through community wealth building. This form of development provides low and moderate-income communities with the tools necessary to build their own wealth. The plan would begin by leveraging our district's anchor institutions, such as The University of Maryland and Bon Secours, to focus their investment and economic activities within the local community. For example, Cleveland's Evergreen Cooperative Initiative has used community wealth building to partner with the Cleveland Clinic to create a local dry cleaning business. The Cleveland Clinic agreed to give the local business their large dry cleaning contract and community members are offered local jobs and a chance to become part-owners of the company.
• Build the financial literacy and networking capabilities of our citizens. My office will expand our citizens' knowledge about the essentials of financial literacy such as using credit responsibly, understanding the long-term benefits of saving, and managing money wisely. My office will create networking opportunities for businesses and individuals to market themselves and create connections that will yield mutually beneficial relationships.
• Introduce a bill to prohibit private employers from discrimination on the basis of a person's arrest or conviction record. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 92% of employers did some kind of pre-employment background check in 2010. If we leave our ex-offenders with no options to provide for themselves or their families, many will go right back to the streets. With the right training and opportunity, ex-offenders can become a valuable part of our workforce.
• Explore the possibility of passing a bill that mandates that a percentage of our government procurement dollars is spent locally.