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Confusing Baltimore and Maryland Ballot Initiatives, Clarified

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/1/2006

Each Election Day, a number of questions litter the bottom of ballots--questions about bond issues and constitutional amendments, for example--and often the first time voters ever hear anything about them is the day they go to vote. They're forced to make snap decisions based on incomplete information and confusing language. Well, we're here to help. This year Maryland is asking voters to consider three state constitutional amendments and one statewide referendum; the city, meanwhile, is asking Baltimore voters to consider eight bond issues, totaling $120 million, and four charter amendments. Here's the dirt on all of them.

State Ballot Initiatives

Of the statewide measures, the two that most people are likely to be familiar with are the proposed constitutional amendment on the disposition of park lands and the referendum revising election laws. Question 1 would require the Board of Public Works to get approval from the General Assembly before selling, transferring, or disposing of state-owned park and preservation land. The issue first drew attention in 2004 due to Gov. Robert Ehrlich's involvement in a below-the-radar deal with a well-connected contractor to sell him land that the state had purchased using Program Open Space funds. The deal eventually fell through after a series of Sun articles led to protests from lawmakers and preservationists--articles that also led to the governor ordering state officials not to talk to two Sun staffers. The ballot question asks voters to decide whether a law needs to be passed adding an extra layer of approval from the General Assembly for future land transactions.

The state also is asking voters to amend state election law to mandate that every polling place have computerized voter registration lists on hand. The computerized system making those lists available failed during the Sept. 12 primary elections, and polling places experienced crashes and problems during the election. But the computer system was deemed functional in a mock election test, so the state is asking voters to authorize it to keep using the computerized system rather than return to the previous system that utilized paper cards. The measure also would create new voting precincts around universities, require public reports from local election boards on voter registration and voters who have been removed from the rolls, and give the state more authority over local election boards.

The other two constitutional amendments focus on court procedures. Question No. 2 would allow Circuit Court litigants to appeal unfavorable rulings with an in banc review (performed by a panel of three judges) in the Court of Special Appeals.

Ballot question No. 3 would make it so that civil court cases would have to have more than $10,000 in dispute in order to merit a jury trial. According to the Maryland League of Women Voters, the amendment's goal is to keep jury dockets from becoming unnecessarily clogged.

City Ballot Initiatives

The city's bond issues would create $120 million in loans for schools, libraries, cultural institutions, and building projects. That is exactly the same amount of money requested in 2004's bond issues, despite two consecutive years of a budget surplus since then. In 2004 every city ballot issue passed except one that would lower the age requirement to serve on the City Council to 18.

Bond issues are often frustratingly vague, using broad terms like economic and community development to encapsulate millions of dollars' worth of specific projects. The city's Department of Planning put out a brochure this year asking voters to give all eight bond issues the thumbs up and providing a greater level of detail as to what the voters would actually be approving.

Question A would allow Baltimore City to take out $36 million in loans to build new schools and update and add to existing school structures. The Department of Planning brochure says the loan would supplement funds already set aside for school-construction projects, like converting several elementary schools to pre-K through eighth grade, and increasing education programs for pre-K students. Windows, doors, roofs, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems also would be updated.

In July, City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell (D-11th) raised concerns that the same school-building projects got funded year after year with little result. More recently, the city schools have come under fire for possible overuse of no-bid contracts for some matters, including several construction projects.

Question B would allocate $3 million in city loans to build and renovate Enoch Pratt Free Library buildings, matching state funds for the renovation of the Central Library.

Question F gives $9 million to parks and recreation. The money will be used to build new rec centers in Morrell Park and Clifton Park, as well as a new gymnasium at the Edgewood-Lyndhurst Recreation Center and other general improvements.

Question G provides $3.6 million in loans for various cultural institutions. According to the Department of Planning, this year's dollars would provide anywhere from $200,000 to $800,000 for existing cultural institutions, including the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, the Babe Ruth Museum, and Center Stage. It would also provide money for new projects, such as a Heritage and Education Center in the Inner Harbor and a visitor center to be built in the Upton neighborhood as part of the revitalization of the city's Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.

The total amount requested for cultural institutions is less than the $4.2 million requested on the 2004 ballot. But unlike in 2004, this year voters can't pick and choose which institutions they want to support. If you want money to go the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, you also have to OK shelling out for Center Stage.

Question H sets aside $2 million for constructing and repairing public buildings. The money would go to replacing the water supply system in the Abel Wolman Building, improving the elevators in the Guilford Municipal Building, and the heat, ventilation, and air-conditioning system in the Park Heights Multipurpose Center, as well as updating the fire and electrical systems in various municipal buildings.

Two bond issues, Questions C and E, are so vaguely worded it is difficult to know what they really mean. They also have two of the highest dollar amounts. Question C earmarks $32 million in loans for unspecified work for "the community development program," and Question E gives $24.4 million for nondelineated commercial and economic development. The Planning Department's brochure provides more detail, but still uses vague terms such as "special capital projects" that don't do much to clarify what, exactly, this money will pay for. According to the brochure, Question C's $32 million would go toward demolition projects, financing a federal program to help low-income families rent and buy homes, stabilizing structures, and maintaining vacant properties (particularly in Project 5000 areas). It would help the city buy properties and relocate families for Project 5000 and "other important City developments." Some of the money also would go to Live Near Your Work incentives, redeveloping public and mixed-income housing, revitalizing Park Heights, and repairing and upgrading housing for low-income elderly people, youth centers, and homeless shelters.

As for Question E the planning brochure states that "Economic Development funds are used to retain and attract jobs in the City and increase tax revenues." The $24.4 million will be broken up between the Westside Redevelopment Initiative surrounding the renovated Hippodrome Theatre and retaining and attracting new businesses to specified areas including Curtis Bay, Rosemont, Pulaski Highway, and Canton. It also would pay for some residential and commercial projects in the East Baltimore Development Initiative, including the creation of a Life Sciences Center, and small-business loans for retail districts in Park Heights, Howard Park, Waverly, and Pennsylvania Avenue, among others. It would also provide funding for industrial and commercial loans that would be vetted by the Baltimore Development Corp. and a brownfields project to clean up contaminated properties so that they can be redeveloped.

Two ballot questions address affordable housing issues. Baltimore's median home price in fiscal year 2006 rose to $140,000, according to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation--more than doubling the median price for fiscal year 2000--so affordable housing has become a major issue in the city. The market has cooled significantly, but measures are still needed to make sure there's enough housing for median- and low-income families.

In 2005 the City Council created a Task Force on Inclusionary Zoning and Housing. In July the task force recommended creating an affordable housing trust fund with money from city transfer taxes and recordation fees. Question J is a charter amendment creating such a trust fund, but the charter amendment doesn't specify a funding source. Instead, Question D would provide $10 million in funding for the program.

The other charter amendments include Question I, which would create an independent compensation commission for elected officials. It's an idea a long time in the making--the City Council first introduced the bill in December 2004--and it would bring Baltimore City in line with the state General Assembly and many other Maryland counties, most of which have some type of board overseeing elected officials' salaries. The seven-member commission would be appointed by the mayor, president of the City Council, and the city comptroller. It would evaluate compensation levels and make recommendations that would then be approved by the City Council. The amendment would give the City Council the ability to approve or reject the commission's recommendations up or down, but it would not have the power to change them. If the City Council voted against the recommendations, elected officials' salaries would remain unchanged.

"The current system is no system at all," says Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th), who approves of the measure. "I think that the compensation of elected officials is a very sensitive issue, especially in times when other people are losing jobs and having their salaries reduced, people we represent."

The final two charter amendments deal with union issues. Question K would give firefighters' unions specific assurances that multiyear contracts will be honored and prevent contracts that would span more than one administration. In the late 1970s the city reneged on part of a multiyear contract. Since then, the firefighters' unions have stuck primarily to one-year contracts, a system that keeps them in an almost perpetual state of negotiations with the city.

"The labor commissioner's office supported the amendment," says labor commissioner Sean Malone, which came at the behest of the firefighters' unions. "It's a pretty basic principle of negotiation that you honor the deal that you make."

Finally, Question L would simplify the appeal system for municipal employees who have been suspended or demoted for more than 30 days. Under current law employees who have been suspended for 30 or more days must go through the Civil Service Commission to appeal their suspensions, while employees suspended for less than that time period can file a grievance and go through arbitration. The City Union of Baltimore, which represents a fifth of the city's employees, supports Question L, noting on its web site that the amendment would "provide fair treatment for city employees."

Malone supports the amendment as well.

"The current administration believes in collective bargaining," he says. "We believe that labor and management should sit at the table and negotiate their issues, and if that takes place, a good resolution for workers, for management, for the city as a whole usually comes about. And that's what both of these amendments go to."

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