- Charter Schools /
- Criminal Justice /
- Economic & Fiscal Policy /
- Education /
- Taxes /
- Transportation /
Pugh confronts schools deficit, high crime in first 100 days as Baltimore mayor
Originally published in the Baltimore Sun
Within days of her inauguration in December, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh faced pressure from advocacy groups to complete an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to curb police misconduct before the Trump administration took office.
She got the deal done; it's now being considered by a federal judge.
Then she was confronted with a $130 million deficit in the city school budget and the threat of widespread teacher layoffs.
On Friday, after weeks of negotiations with state lawmakers, she proposed a $180 million, three-year plan to increase city and state funding for schools. She awaits the response of the General Assembly and governor.
All the while, she's been dogged by a high crime rate: Homicides, shootings, robberies and carjackings are all on the rise. This month, seven police officers from an elite gun crime unit were indicted on federal racketeering charges.
Pugh's first 100 days in office have been a baptism by fire. How she responds to these early crises, allies, adversaries, analysts and observers say, will set the tone for her administration.
"It's important for everybody to back up and recognize that she is new in office and she didn't do anything to create these problems," said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chairman of the influential community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, which has held protests to pressure Pugh on school funding. "But in crisis, there is tremendous opportunity to have a significant impact as a leader."
Longtime community activist Ralph Moore Jr. says he gives Pugh a "C+" on her first 100 days. He said the indictments of the seven members of the Gun Trace Task Force, over-budget police overtime, spiking water bills and the way the city cleared a homeless encampment have been troubling.
"I hear people say nice things about her, but many others say it's time for some action," he said. "It's time to show us what you're going to do. Somehow she's got to get command of city government and make the services work more effectively."
Pugh says she sees the problems Baltimore confronts not as crises, but opportunities. She says she has quietly implemented plans to address some of the city's most persistent challenges that lead to crime and hold back growth: joblessness, vacant properties, litter, broken street lights and racial inequity.
"Every day is challenging," the new mayor told The Baltimore Sun. "But I am excited every day to do this work. ... I want to make sure we all have equal access to the opportunities. The opportunities don't always reach every community."
Pugh and her senior leadership team have brought ideas they hope will fix some of Baltimore's deepest problems.
That team includes former city schools CEO Tisha Edwards, her chief of staff; former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith, her chief of strategic alliances; and former state Del. Peter Hammen, her chief of operations.
Most of the city's 55 agency heads, however, are holdovers from the administration of her predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Pugh did make changes at the city's housing, information technology and civil rights offices. Pugh recruited former Del. Jill P. Carter to lead the city's civil rights efforts, and has launched nationwide searches to fill the other positions.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Pugh is earning a reputation of a "progressive who gets things done."
She said Pugh has worked to find common ground with fellow Democrats in the General Assembly on challenges such as school funding while engaging President Donald Trump and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on issues such as infrastructure and demolishing vacant homes.
"It's clear she is the bridge-builder she claimed to be during the campaign," Kromer said.
But retired Deputy Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale says he sees a lack of accountability in the city's approach to policing. Since the riots of 2015, arrests have dropped and homicides have soared. Baltimore has suffered more than 300 killings in each of the last two years, and they're up by 38 percent this year.
Barksdale ran police operations in 2011, when killings dropped below 200 a year for the first time in decades. The agency spent $100 million less that year, but made more than twice as many arrests.
Barksdale said the city seems to be focused on implementing the consent decree to reform police misconduct, but needs to recommit to accountability programs such as CompStat and CitiStat, which focus on crime reduction.
"I believe that Mayor Pugh has the best intentions for the city, but her CitiStat team has to be so aggressive to keep her agenda on track," he said. "I just don't see that. If [Commissioner] Kevin Davis was presenting these types of numbers, [former Mayors] Martin O'Malley and Sheila Dixon wouldn't have stood for it.
"Without that firm CitiStat and CompStat commitment, you're not going to get what you want. I yelled. I pounded the desk. But I don't regret it. We had to save lives. We had to make communities safe. The consent decree should not be a pass on so many issues."
To address crime, the Pugh administration has created four small "transformation zones" — one each in East, West, Northwest and Southwest Baltimore, where crime is high — to be flooded with city services, including health and housing code enforcement.
"We need to move away from crime just being about policing," said Edwards, Pugh's chief of staff. "When there's a murder, that's an employment problem. When there's a murder, that's an addiction problem. ... We're shifting the paradigm from policing being at the center of public safety."
As they do this, administration officials say they plan to shrink the Baltimore Police Department's more than $450 million budget over a number of years to devote more money toward other services. They hope to do this while shifting more officers into patrol.
"We need an appropriately funded police force, not a hyper-funded police force," Edwards said. "Once we right-size our police force, we can redirect resources to more investment in people. There is no internal disagreement that a shift has to happen."
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and now an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said such a strategy might well work, but he thinks the department is still reeling from the charges against the six officers in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
Arrests dropped from about 60,000 in 2011 to about 25,000 last year.
"I still think we're seeing a lack of proactive policing," he said. "If you don't see police as part of the solution to high crime, you're doomed to high crime."
The Rev. Donte Hickman of East Baltimore's Southern Baptist Church said he appreciates that Pugh called in 100 community leaders recently to discuss solutions for crime.
"I know people want to see an executive order come out and change everything right away," he said. "But she's staying focused on what will really bring about the needed changes and transformation in Baltimore. If we don't deal with the real, hardened mind of what years of poverty has produced, we're doing ourselves a disservice."
The city's unemployment rate stands at 5.7 percent. That's down from 7 percent a year ago — but it's still higher than the state rate of 4.2 percent.
To address joblessness, Pugh plans to roll out a fleet of seven mobile employment vehicles, to go into the city's poorest neighborhoods with lists of job openings and training programs, and then recruit residents to apply.
"Why can't I set a goal of each unit that goes out, you've got to employ 10 people a day?" Pugh asked. "With seven units, that's 70 people a day. ... If everything was perfect, I could eliminate unemployment in the city."
She said she has secured outside funds for at least two of the mobile units.
Officials have estimated the city's homeless population at 2,800.
To address homelessness, Pugh intends to create a new type of homeless shelter for 50 to 100 people in Baltimore. Pugh said she drew designs for the new center on the back of a piece of paper. She wants the shelter to include individual rooms with showers, and wants staff to provide meals and mental health, addiction and employment services.
Pugh has plans to deal with litter, broken lights and vacant properties, as well.
The mayor has tasked Hammen with recruiting a team of volunteers called the "Clean Corps" to bolster the city's efforts to pick up litter. Hammen said the city also is placing more solar-powered "BigBelly" compacting trash cans around Baltimore.
Pugh also plans to launch an initiative to light up swaths of the city that are dark at night, leading to dangerous conditions. The mayor said the Police Department has offered to fly her over the city to help pick the best spots to light up. She said the new lighting program should launch within a month.
To address vacant properties, the administration is exploring the creation of a new development authority that would buy vacant properties and lure investors.
The administration hosted former Pittsburgh Mayor Thomas J. Murphy Jr. recently to discuss ideas for economic development. Murphy, who took office after a rapid loss in population, cut millions of dollars from the Police Department to create a development authority that has helped in the revitalization of the city.
Pugh is also pushing ahead with a joint city-state program to tear down vacant properties. In one of her first acts in office, she ordered the demolition of a long-vacant church on Fulton Street.
If the old church had been in a rich, white community, she said, it wouldn't have been allowed to stand empty for years.
"It's finally down," Pugh said. "It didn't last a month in the Pugh administration."
Next, the mayor said, she wants to create incentives to lure 50 or so homeowners to move into a vacant block of homes in Park Heights.
The city is also putting its permitting process online to speed up operations for the 30,000 applicants annually, and is hiring a "small business ombudsman" to help start-ups navigate city bureaucracy.
To address racial inequity, Pugh has asked all of her agencies to make sure Baltimore's black neighborhoods are getting the same opportunities and services as white neighborhoods and businesses.
Pugh "is very interested in spreading the economic development throughout Baltimore to the Baltimoreans who have lived here for generations," said Smith, who oversees economic development for the city. "The mayor is very interested in equity. Frankly, some of the incentives for downtown are going to be reduced."
Last week, the mayor took steps to address the school budget crisis, outlining a $180 million, three-year plan, with roughly half funded by the city.
The rest would come from the state, a proposal that Del. Maggie McIntosh, the city Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is backing. The proposal still needs approval from the full House, Senate and governor.
The money would help the school system close a $130 million budget gap next year that officials have warned could lead to 1,000 layoffs and larger class sizes. Pugh said last week that she's encouraged by her negotiations with state officials.
Pugh enjoys support from community association presidents, business leaders and a conservative think tank interviewed by The Sun. But she has received criticism around crime and the schools' budget. As advocates rallied last week for more school funding, principals and parents said she was moving too slowly to fix the problem.
Others appreciate the deliberative style.
Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Community Association, said she likes how Pugh takes time to fully explore issues before rushing to make public statements.
"I appreciate the fact she's very practical," she said. "She's a bottom-line person. She's going to run the budget the same way we would run a household budget."
Christopher Summers, president of the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute, said Pugh has performed "exceptionally well" in her first 100 days, "considering what she was left to deal with."
He said the mayor has to be "prudent" in her approach to school funding and policing.
"A lot of people want to judge, but she wants to get it right," he said.
Moore said he believes the mayor has surrounded herself with good people, but he's looking forward to seeing her plans put into action.
"It's nice to cheerlead, but we need the concrete," he said. "That's what remains to be seen."
Ericka Alston, founder of the Kids Safe Zone in Sandtown-Winchester, said she was skeptical of Pugh when she took office. Alston backed Dixon in last year's mayoral race. But she said the new mayor has won her over.
"She came into the position with her feet on the ground running," Alston said. She believes Pugh inherited many of the city's problems, but is working hard to fix them.
"She's about getting the work done and not wasting time to do it," she said. "I was skeptical. It did not take me long to say, 'Well, she's doing the work.'"
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he appreciates the mayor's efforts to get Cabinet members out in the community — they've taken bus tours of East and West Baltimore — and that her administration got the Justice Department consent decree signed.
"I love the fact that they are getting the agency folks outside of their comfort zone," Scott said. "When you're facing the issues we're facing, everyone should be uncomfortable."
But Scott said he's deeply concerned about the level of violence in Baltimore.
"I'm not happy with how we've been handling crime," he said. "Clearly it hasn't been working. But we all have to do our part. We can't look at it like the mayor failed. It's not about one person. If we fail, the whole city suffers."
Pugh is scheduled to deliver her first State of the City address on Thursday, her 100th day in office. The address is scheduled for 3 p.m. in the City Council chambers.