The Year in News
If we were cynical about the state of our city in 2006, we have become even more so after watching 2007 unfold. Our Top 10 list for last year included some pretty disheartening stuff, including allegations of racketeering and tax fraud against Baltimore County's retired Sen. Thomas Bromwell, feeble attempts by the Maryland General Assembly to mitigate a massive BGE rate hike, and reports that the real estate boom was finally turning into a bust.
Fast forward to 2007: Bromwell is being sentenced, the General Assembly still hasn't come up with any way to alleviate skyrocketing energy prices in the deregulated electricity market, the real estate bust has resulted in record numbers of foreclosures and an increasingly depressed housing market. Despite startlingly high murder and crime rates, few voters turned out at the polls this election season--and those who did voted the status quo back into office.
Slots are back on the table, state taxes are going up, Sheila Dixon is our mayor for the foreseeable future. Oh, and things we always thought of as safe and sound--kids toys, pet food, and novelty frozen foods--may contain poisonous substances like lead and GHB.
Here's hoping for a more fulfilling 2008.
1 Sheila Dixon Elected Mayor of Baltimore, Fires Everyone
Key Players: Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, former Fire Chief William J. Goodwin, former Chief of Staff Otis Rolley, former Parks Director Connie A. Brown, former Mayoral Spokesman Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's sister Janice Dixon and her former employer Mildred Boyer, and Ronald Lipscomb of Doracon Contracting
The Plot: Dixon took the city's reins last January amid celebration and smiles, but she did so under the shadow of a state prosecutor's investigation into no-bid city contracts for her friend and campaign manager, Dale Clark (who has since pleaded guilty to tax evasion), and a company that employed her sister, Janice. Striking an imperial, almost regal pose in her campaign, Dixon easily fended off challengers, besting her main rival, Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, by 34,000 votes in the primary election. Thus she became the first black woman elected mayor of Baltimore.
But amid some laudable initiatives she embarked on as head of the city--paving long-neglected streets and brightening the city's parks--the problems Baltimore faces have mounted. The murder rate rose sharply in 2007 (though it has slowed as the year has drawn to a close), the fire department fell into crisis, and the city's housing department weathered critical reports from a city audit, the nonprofit Abell Foundation, and this newspaper. Dixon's administration has seen the sudden departure of her police and fire chiefs, her chief of staff, Otis Rolley, Parks Director Connie Brown and spokesman Anthony McCarthy, who left under an ill-defined cloud of allegations stemming from a county police investigation. Now the state prosecutor has issued new subpoenas--including one to the mayor directly--and raided the office of Dixon's friend Ron Lipscomb, head of Doracon Contracting. Dixon says it's all a witch hunt, but a year into her administration it looks as though she might get burned.
2 Murder rate in Baltimore rises
Key Players: Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Police Commissioner Ed Norris, former Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, current Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld
The Plot: The pace for this year's crime wave was set early: The first recorded murder of the year was that of 17-year-old Leon Nelson, who was shot on New Year's Day at a West Baltimore carryout restaurant. His death was followed by the deaths of six other Baltimoreans killed in the first week of the year; by the end of the first 10 days of 2007, the city had counted at least 15 homicides. For a while, it seemed as if the city might be on track to break 300 murders, but things finally slowed down at the end of the year--but not enough to keep the 2007 murder rate below that of 2006.
Mayor Sheila Dixon, who inherited the city's problems when she took over Martin O'Malley's term after he was elected governor, announced in May that she and Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm had put together a crime plan to combat the crime wave in the city. Shortly after she released her plan, ex-police commissioner turned radio talk show host Ed Norris announced that he, too, had a crime plan for the city--and one of the key points in that plan called for the firing of Hamm. Dixon and Norris had a tête-à-tête to discuss his thoughts on the crime problem, and he must have said something that appealed to her, because by midsummer Hamm announced his resignation and Deputy Commissioner Col. Frederick Bealefeld was named acting commissioner.
In October, Dixon announced that Bealefeld was going to remain in the job permanently. But the murders kept coming. By the end of November, CQ Press, an arm Congressional Quarterly Inc., had ranked Baltimore as the 12th most dangerous city in America.
As of press time there were 270 murders (that's 17 more than there were as of this date in 2006).
We can't wait to ring in 2008.
3 Baltimore City Fire Department Falls Apart
Key Players: Fire department recruit Racheal M. Wilson, fire department Chief William Goodwin, Mayor Sheila Dixon, fire officer's union head Stephan G. Fugate, Henry Burris, head of black firefighters' group the Vulcan Blazers
The Plot: In February, firefighter trainee Racheal M. Wilson died during a training exercise in which she was fighting a fire set by her trainers. The incident set off a cascade of questions and unflattering reports about an unprofessional department, which was found to be using outdated training techniques, keeping secret accounts, violating safety standards, and cheating on promotion exams. All this was taking place amid an overlay of racial tension--twice in 2007 the Fire Department made headlines when allegations of racially charged incidents had to be looked into by officials. As a result of all the turmoil in the department, several training officers were fired and Chief William Goodwin resigned in November, leaving us wondering what's next for the city's beleaguered firefighters.
4 No Surprises From Election 2007
Key Players: Mayor Sheila Dixon, City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Councilman Ken Harris, tens of thousands of Baltimoreans who didn't go out to vote on Election Day
The Plot: This year's election tells an all-too-familiar tale: Low voter turnout and high voter apathy create another year in which nearly all the incumbents running for office retain their seats. Dixon won the mayoral race handily, leaving her main challenger, City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell (11th District), in the dust. Likewise, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did the same to Councilman Ken Harris (4th District), who was running against her for the Council President seat. A nice score for Dixon and Rawlings-Blake, but a blow for Baltimore, which loses two active and independent councilmen, Mitchell and Harris, who had to give up their seats to run for higher office.
5 Former Sen. Bromwell Pleads Guilty, is then Canonized by Friends and Media
Key Players: Thomas L. Bromwell, sympathetic supporters such as U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and 1st Mariner Bank chairman Ed Hale
The Plot: OK, sure, former Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell pled guilty to racketeering and failure to file a tax return, and maybe he steered a few public contracts toward a company that fixed up his house and employed his wife in a fake business. Perhaps he even bragged about the whole thing in expletive-laden FBI recordings, but does that make him a bad guy?
Not to all the people who wrote letters on his behalf when it came time for the sentencing. Turns out that when Bromwell wasn't a shill for the overdog, he was a "rooter for the underdog," in the words of one supporter, Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. Ed Hale, chair of 1st Mariner Bank, wrote asking District Court Judge Frederick Motz to keep in mind Bromwell's generosity to at-risk children while he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and former Sen. Francis X. Kelly Jr. were among the 50 people who weighed in on Bromwell's behalf.
Former chairman of the Transportation Communications Union and longtime Bromwell supporter Anthony P. Santoro, Jr. wrote that although "Tom Bromwell was a bad decision maker," he wasn't a bad human being. James Simms, a lifelong friend, expressed his hopes the judge would see Bromwell in a different light--as "the bright young boy playing stick wiffle ball on the courts of Perry Hall Elementary School," and ignore the "rough language" that the media had played up so much.
In the end, The Examiner's Michael Olesker put it best in a column about Bromwell and his wife tearfully entering their pleas. There was no need to beat up on the Bromwells, Olesker said. "They awaken each morning and look in the mirror," he wrote, "and there isn't a curse in the whole world they haven't hurled at themselves."
Bromwell didn't leave his beneficence at the courtroom door. The Washington Post pointed out that the plea agreement doesn't require the former senator to name the names of any other politicians involved in potentially criminal activities, so at least no one else will have to suffer the embarrassment he has.
6 Slot Machines Take a Step Toward the Jackpot
Key Players: The Maryland General Assembly
The Plot: After years of bickering and partisanship, the Maryland General Assembly has finally decided to do something about slots. Specifically, it has decided to let the voters decide the issue next November, which ensures another year of hearing about how many of our hard-earned quarters are going out of state, when they could be used for, you know, the children.
Baltimore City made the short list of proposed slots locations, with an allocation of 3,500 machines near the intersection of I-95 and MD 295. If the slots referendum passes in November, it could bring in about $8 million to local governments in 2011, according to the state Department of Legislative Services, and $70 million in 2013. Roughly half of the gross revenue would go to an Education Trust Fund created by the bill, and about 9 percent (as much as $140 million a year) will go to the horse-racing industry
7 More New Taxes
Key Players: Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael Busch.
The Plot: For 40 years the state income tax remained untouched. Instead of raising it, governors and legislators over the years increased the sales tax and the myriad fees that fill the government's coffers. Despite those sales tax and fee increases, though, a "structural deficit" of $1.7 billion persisted. Now--allegedly--that will be paid down with Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to increase income taxes for the first time in decades. Maryland households earning $40,000 per year will pay only $7 more each year in total taxes, according to an analysis of the plan. Families earning $75,000 per year will have to cough up an additional $45, and people earning more than that will have to pay more. Families earning $150,000 per year would pay $196 in increased taxes.
All this doesn't include a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, meaning pack-a-day smokers will be charged $365 more--even as fewer and fewer places allow them to indulge their habit.
8 Mortgage Industry Meltdown
Key Players: Legions of house "flippers" and investors, you and us and everyone else who lives in a dwelling, major investment banks, pension funds and local banks, plus mortgage brokers and real estate investors.
The Plot: Like much of America, Baltimore City saw a huge run up in home prices between 2002 and 2006. City officials played up the spiraling prices, claiming it was a sign of urban renaissance and urging would-be investors to get in while it's hot. But this year the sham was revealed. In many city neighborhoods--but especially the Southeast area around Canton--foreclosures have increased exponentially amid plummeting sales prices. Meanwhile, high-interest "subprime" mortgages dominate in the neighborhoods of the city's northeast, and in the northwest sections of the city and out into the county.
The state's high-speed foreclosure process (as little as three weeks from first notice to lock-out) is the subject of possible reform legislation. Nationally, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has called for an interest-rate freeze on adjustable mortgages. So far most of the losses have been absorbed by small investors and home owners, while the big investment banks have written-off more than $25 billion in bad loans already, with little sign of relief. The Wall Street Journal reports that next year alone half a trillion worth of mortgages will reset to sharply higher rates, fueling more foreclosures. Since late 2006, 195 lenders have halted business, and the fallout will likely continue for years. Falling house values will squeeze every homeowner, while vacant homes attract the crime and grime for which Baltimore is known.
9 Toys, pet food, human food are hazardous to your health
Key Players: Consumers all across the country
The Plot: E. coli in pizza, lead in children's toys, melamine in pet foods--it seems that everything we bought this year came with a little something extra that was hazardous to our health.
Dozens of brands of major-label dog foods were recalled when it was discovered that tainted Chinese wheat gluten was used as an ingredient in the foods. Totino's and Jeno's pizzas were recalled due to an E. coli scare, and kids toys were recalled in droves when it was determined that they contained lead paint or other hazardous substances.
Aqua Dots, for example, a children's craft kit made in China, has earned its place in history as the most ill-conceived toy since lawn darts were pulled from the market. If the garden variety small-object choking hazard didn't get you, a coating on the beads turned into the date-rape drug GHB when ingested. This is good news if you are a member of an elite ninja death squad bent on assassinating a child emperor, but somewhat disquieting to the casual shopper.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to its annual report released in November, set a 10-year record for the number of voluntary recalls (472) and touted improvements such as translating U.S. safety standards into Chinese, where many of the recalled toys sold in the United States are made. The commission launched an initiative, according to the report, to tell the public that "despite our best efforts, there are still many recalled products in the hands of the public."
So check the toy bin--there might be something dangerous in there, probably next to the lawn darts.
10 BGE Rate Hikes Approved by PSC
Key Players: Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Maryland Public Service Commission
The Plot: Seems like this was last year's news, but the controversy over the Baltimore Gas and Electric rate hikes did indeed bleed over into this year. In February, PSC member Charles Boutin, one of two remaining commission members appointed by former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, resigned from the commission, giving Gov. Martin O'Malley--who was critical of the commission's cozy relationship with utility companies--more control over the state's energy future. The PSC embarked on a review of the 72 percent utility rate hikes BGE has been phasing in since 2006. Despite O'Malley's assurance that he'd do something to protect the public from having to cough up so much extra cash to keep the lights on, PSC announced in May that it had reviewed the proposed rate hikes and determined that they were indeed justified. On June 1 rates rose 38 percent, and by January 2008 BGE customers will be paying "market rates" for their electricity.
Earlier this month, however, the PSC announced that it was going to recommend a series of "interventions" to deal with energy pricing and shortages in the state. Among its interventions? A proposal to re-regulate the recently deregulated utility market.
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