Good afternoon, President Rawlings Blake and members of the Council. Thank you for inviting me here this afternoon.
To my entire Cabinet and my team of outstanding workers, family and friends, and most importantly, the citizens of Baltimore. Today, as I look across this wonderful city, I'm proud to say that the Baltimore spirit of innovation is alive and well and the state of our city is strong and resilient. For the past two years we have seen great progress towards a cleaner, greener, healthier and safer Baltimore. We are finding new ways to tackle old problems. And as we succeed, others are taking note.
We are showing how one city can turn the tide on violence by getting illegal guns off our streets and making our neighborhoods safe again. We are showing how to learn from tragedy by making our fire department one of the best in the nation.
We are showing how to fight global warming and how saving our planet through responsible and conscience choices will create jobs and opportunities. We are showing how, through partnerships with our neighbors in surrounding counties, to build a transportation system that works for the century ahead. We are showing how to turn around our school system, one student, one parent, and one school at a time.
Ladies and gentlemen it is clear at this point, and moving forward that we must summon the courage to join together in a unity of purpose. A purpose linked with a sense of urgency to partner in pursuit of a smarter and more effective government.
This spirit and these times remind me of a quote I like from former Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan: "We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic, but we can find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny,"
As compared to many cities around the country, Baltimore's economy is performing relatively well. Both Business Week and Forbes Magazine listed us as one of the best places to weather this recession.
By making our city more livable—by investing in the things that matter to our citizens—more and more residents and businesses are choosing to stay in Baltimore. How do we know? As many cities have seen double digit declines in homes values, the average value of a house sold in Baltimore actually increased last year.
On the business front, three major employers will expand into new office buildings this year, representing a combined investment of more than $300 million dollars and adding more than a thousand jobs.
And we're seeing real growth in our two largest industries: health care and tourism. Our merger of BACVA and the Convention Center already is producing great results, and showing dividends. Just seven months into this fiscal year, we are already at 80% towards our goal of booking 475,000 room nights for the convention hotel.
Despite the slowing economy, several major redevelopment projects moved forward in 2008. With the support of you, the City Council, we passed legislation to help build the infrastructure needed to create an entirely new mixed use, mixed income, green community in Westport on the west shore of the Middle Branch.
On Baltimore's Westside, the billion dollar transformation of the project called State Center achieved an important milestone last year with the Council's approval of the master plan. By incorporating green building practices, inclusionary affordable housing, the highest quality architecture and an emphasis on public transportation, these developments showcase the great potential of Baltimore's competitive strengths.
In the past year, we have seen neighbors come together with City government in partnership with the State to define success for the Red Line—not just as a transportation project, but serve as a blueprint to strengthen neighborhoods, restore our environment, and put Baltimore to work. More than 60 community associations and advocacy groups signed on to the Red Line Community Compact.
As questions and concerns about the final Red Line route still exist; we know that through the Community Compact, every community along the proposed route will benefit. Over the next year, we will continue to work together—with the City Council, our State legislators, the Governor and our federal partners—to make the push for as much support for this project as possible. We will unify around the Red Line as our neighbors in the Washington suburbs have done effectively for decades.
And, we will make good on our promises contained in the Community Compact—by identifying job training programs, preparing students at Edmondson-Westside High School for the jobs that will come, and making investments in neighborhoods that have accepted the Red Line. Together we will transform a corridor once known as the "highway to nowhere" into a state-of-the-art transportation network.
While we focus on growing our economic base, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to create affordable housing opportunities for our citizens.
In 2008, we increased affordable housing opportunities by nearly 2,500 units across the city through construction and enhanced utilization. For example, last year we began building the first new homes in Oliver in over 50 years.
We must also realize that some of our city residents don't have homes and those numbers are increasing. I encourage my City Council colleagues to support the legislation in front of you that will allow us to break ground this year on a 275-bed emergency housing and resource center to serve our most vulnerable population. This is a critical part of our Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. We are committed to our communities and giving families a healthy and safe environment to live. Too many of our neighborhoods are hindered from reaching their full potential due to the proliferation of vacant houses.
It is time for us to try bold new initiatives. Last year, at my request, the state passed legislation allowing Baltimore to create the Land Bank Authority. The City now owns about twenty five percent (25%) of all vacant residential buildings in Baltimore. These buildings are not in livable condition, and many are either beyond repair or are too costly to repair. Dilapidated buildings are safety and fire hazards, cause damage to adjoining properties, and cost the City money!
I want to thank Council President Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Pratt, and the members of the Land Bank Task Force for their hard work in preparing for introduction this valuable legislative tool for acquiring, maintaining, and selling abandoned properties.
And now we must finish the job and pass this legislation!
A cornerstone of my administration since day one has been for a cleaner and greener Baltimore. Last year we implemented single stream recycling that increased our city's recycling efforts by 30%. We launched Tree Baltimore with the goal to double the city's tree canopy in 30 years. On February 5, the Baltimore City Planning Commission adopted the Baltimore City Sustainability Plan. This significant document, developed with input from more than 1,000 of our citizens, lays out a broad, inclusive, and community-responsive sustainability agenda for government, businesses and individuals. The plan represents a critical first step towards meeting the environmental, social and economic needs of our city without compromising the ability of future generations to meet its needs.
On behalf of future generations, I want to thank the Office of Sustainability and Sustainability Commission for its hard work on this far reaching plan.
And just today we proposed to the City Council our newest plan to be clean and green with our 1+1 trash pickup and recycling program. Among many other benefits, transitioning to once a week trash pickup and once a week recycling pick up will allow us to tackle a problem that has plagued Baltimore for years—dirty alleys and dirty streets.
Going forward, we must allocate our resources better within city government. This administration will be conducting the first ever "citizens survey." This survey will allow us to hear directly from you to guide us in providing the most effective and cost efficient services. We are also implementing various cost containment measures to maintain our increased bond rating.
At the end of the day, our focus this year is to put Baltimore to work, initiate fiscal discipline and assist all those who have been directly affected most by this unstable economy. The rise in unemployment has resulted in a record number of city residents using our One-Stop Career Centers. Over 60,000 visits have been made to the centers since July- that's almost a 30% increase as compared to last year during the same time period.
And, our strong workforce development system operated by our Office of Employment Development is working hard to provide citizens the tools they need to connect or re-connect to jobs.
We are committed to working with businesses, educational institutions, and citizens to make sure that Baltimore City becomes a leader in our nation's economic recovery. I want the citizens of Baltimore to know that we are doing our best to strengthen our communities and see each other through these unprecedented times.
To face these economic conditions, we must be strong but also safe.
In 2008, Baltimore was a much safer city and we will continue to push for an even safer city in 2009. Through the hard work of Police Commissioner Bealefeld and the Baltimore City Police Department, we saw the homicide rate drop to a historic 20 year low. We achieved this while at the same time reducing police overtime spending by 6 million dollars.
This was accomplished by the hard working men and women of the Baltimore Police Department and our criminal justice partners who demonstrate their commitment and passion for Baltimore every day. I have said many times before; there are too many illegal guns in our city. And these guns and the criminals who use them must be removed from our city.
Just a few weeks ago, officers Dante Arthur and Daniel Harper were making a drug arrest in the Seton Hill neighborhood. Our brave officers were fired upon by these drug dealers, and Officer Arthur was hit in the process. Fortunately, Officer Harper acted quickly and was able to save his and his partner's life.
Our prayers are with Officer Arthur and his family for a speedy recovery. I can't imagine the heartbreak the Arthur family felt when they got the called that night. I will never forget that morning last September when I received a phone call learning about the tragic loss of someone dear to all of us: former Councilman Ken Harris. We will always remember Ken as a caring husband, a loving father, and a giving friend; who stood with us in this very chamber vigorously fighting for disadvantaged youth.
Ken's death was devastating on so many levels. Why did this happen to someone who devoted his life to opening doors of opportunity to young people in our City? We may never know the answer to that, but I believe God has a plan and goodwill come from this evil act.
There are too families who endure the loss of loved ones at the hands of senseless violence. I am fed up with seeing convicted gun offenders released back onto the streets of our City. Police, prosecutors, judges and citizens must have zero tolerance for illegal guns and the criminals that use them.
One of the suspects in Ken's case was convicted of carrying a loaded weapon just one month before his murder. We cannot keep doing the same things and expect better results.
This year, my administration will mobilize a statewide effort to establish mandatory minimum sentences for criminals who are arrested with an illegal, loaded firearm. I've heard the critics in Annapolis before, but illegal guns have only one purpose--to kill.
The people police arrest today with a loaded gun in their cars or on their waistbands are the same people who go out to shoot police officers like Officer Arthur and kill our dear friend Ken Harris. This law will provide an additional resource for law enforcement, prosecutors and courts to get illegal guns and gun offenders off the streets.
In 2006, New York State passed a similar law that changed the offense of carrying an illegal, loaded firearm to a felony. In 2007, New York City posted a 17% reduction in homicides—the lowest number in more than 40 years.
We have the data and we know the facts about illegal guns and the devastation they bring to Baltimore. Ken was a tireless advocate for this type of work within Baltimore. He was more than just a victim of this type of crime, but a crusader who fought against it. I urge all of my colleagues in the City and across the State to join me in honoring the legacy of Ken Harris by getting this law passed and implemented.
We have proven in the past that in Baltimore, we know how to turn tragedy into triumph. Two years ago today, Rachel Wilson, an apprentice of the Fire Department, lost her life during a live burn training exercise. That event served as a wakeup call to a Fire Department with a long history and storied legacy. Upon arriving in Baltimore, Chief Clack's first task was to develop a culture of safety within the Department. Though not easy, every member of the Fire Department must understand what happened on February 9, 2007, and we must all pledge that it will never happen again on our watch.
I am pleased to report that great progress is being made.
On December 8, 2008, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued their final report on Rachel's tragedy. The report details ten specific recommendations for the leadership and membership of the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD), and all ten recommendations are being fully implemented by Chief Clack.
I am also proud to announce that the Fire Department's focus on safety and community education helped us achieve a 44 percent reduction in fire deaths in 2008 compared to 2007 while reducing overtime by 7 million dollars. That means 15 fewer families in Baltimore lost a loved one due to a preventable fire.
This tireless effort toward fire safety is seen here today in the sweet face of a 5 year old. A few weeks ago, Alaurra (AH-laura) Thomas saved her parents life by waking them up when she heard the smoke alarm go off. If it wasn't for her quick thinking, we might not be honoring her and her parents here today.
These real life heroes risk their lives for ours every day and I implore you to thank them for their service the next time you see them.
As a former schoolteacher, I care about the education and well-being of every citizen in the city. And Baltimore, we are finally making progress with our schools!
After 40 years of an annual decreased enrollment, we increased enrollment and educated more students this year. We also gave our students and parents more choices in schools by opening 8 new schools this year. Despite the budget shortfall we added 19 pre-kindergarten classrooms that serve an additional 380 students in full-day settings.
We also hired 54 New Principals and 234 former dropouts returned to school. However, I am most proud of the accomplishments in the classroom. Elementary and High School students met Adequately Yearly Progress Targets for the first time and the number of high schools making Adequate Yearly Progress nearly doubled from 11 to 21 in one year. Additionally, Maryland State Assessment Reading scores improved 11%, and Math scores improved 7.5%. Our Graduation Rate is at the highest and our dropout rate is at the lowest since state records were first kept in 1996.
However, my vision of educational excellence in Baltimore still isn't fulfilled. As much as we can control what we teach and how our students learn in the classroom, we need to perform better as parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends to nurture kids outside of the schoolhouse. I will continue the tradition that I began as City Council President of investing in initiatives like community schools, after-school programs, and youth employment through Youth-Works and After-School Matters II.
In 2009, I plan to act on my commitment to develop the human potential of the City's residents by focusing on developing a seamless continuum of service delivery, beginning with improving birth outcomes through school enrollment.
But my commitment does not end when our children enroll in school. To ensure that our youth are ready for a productive life at 21, I have established the Mayor's Inter-Agency Sub-Cabinet on Youth to manage the coordination of efforts of public-funded programs serving youth at the community level. We have the capacity in our existing programs to reach more young people and their families than we are currently reaching. Outreach to families will be a vital part of maximizing the potential of our youth.
As mayor, every life lost to homicide in this City upsets me, but as a parent to two teenagers, the murders of juveniles infuriate me. We cannot stand idly by and watch this generation destroy themselves. This year, I plan to build on the success of the Gun Offender Registry and expand it to include juveniles that are convicted of adult gun crimes.
We know that this is a solution that works.
In the first year of our Gun Offender Registry program, we registered 460 adult gun offenders and only 3 of them have been re-arrested for gun possession. We expect similar results for the juvenile gun offender registry.
However, this isn't just a crime problem, an education problem, an inner-city problem, or even a Baltimore problem; this is a problem for our whole society, our humanity. We need to step up our prevention, intervention and supervision programs. To that end, I would like to recognize the efforts of several community groups and programs that are working in the trenches to reduce violence. Last year, through the Health Department, my Administration launched Safe Streets. This program has been successful in mediating disputes that might otherwise have resulted in a shooting and I am grateful for their work in our communities.
I would like to also acknowledge the important work of organizations like the Rose Street Community Center and its director Clayton Guy-ton and "On Our Shoulders" and its director Ray Cook. These organizations and individuals have worked tirelessly for years on a daily basis to reach our most disconnected youth in the most dangerous parts of our city. Through their efforts, countless lives have been stabilized; countless lives have been saved.
Today, I implore you to be just like them.
If these men find the time to look out for the rest of us, what is our excuse not to do the same? These are trying times that demand for all of us to pitch in and help one another out. Volunteer, get involved, and show this city the hard work and dedication Baltimore deserves.
Although I have prioritized the city's financial health this year, my administration is equally engaged in our physical health. We are fortunate to have one of the best Health Departments and Health Commissioners in the country, Dr. Josh Sharfstein and his team. A year ago, this administration passed and implemented the Clean Indoor Air Act paving the way for a statewide indoor smoking ban. This year we will continue to curb smoking and the outrageous health costs that come with the habit by outlawing the sale of single cigars and cigarettes.
Additionally, the department's 2008 Health Status Report for Baltimore City highlights some severe disparities that exist between many of our neighborhoods. This report was used as a springboard for an initiative that I am positive will be a great step towards making Baltimore a healthier city in 2009: Fit Baltimore.
This initiative is reaching into communities to help prevent diseases caused by poor nutrition and inactivity. As we say at Fit Baltimore, "Don't just exist. Be. Be Confident. Be positive. And Be Fit Baltimore!"
Finally, the Health Department will be releasing its quarterly report on drug abuse and alcohol intoxication deaths tomorrow. This report, which covers the first three quarters of 2008, finds that intoxication deaths were 34% lower in the first three quarters of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007. This represents approximately 60 fewer deaths.
As we look forward to 2009, we need to build upon the energy of this spirit of renewal, hope and change that President Barack Obama has brought to the nation and yet heed his warnings of tough times ahead. Yes, we are encouraged by the new tone set in our nation's capital with a federal partner who understands the importance of urban cities that have been left neglected for way too long. We are in a full court press seeking federal investment to improve our infrastructure with ready to go projects.
As I work with the members of our Congressional delegation, my focus will continue to be on job growth as well as resurfacing our roads, repairing our bridges and providing our children with more modern schools to learn. We are all aware of the poor economic condition of our country and our state which affects this city as well.
But I know the key is to recognize, as this city's dear friend, Bill Cosby, often says, "In order to succeed, our desire for success must be greater than our fear of failure."
We are going to have to make hard decisions that will affect many people's lives. But I have faith in God. And I believe in the innovative spirit of this city. That spirit of innovation is the very foundation on which this community has celebrated good times and faced down our challenges. You see the great secret is that it is not the government of Baltimore, but it is the people of Baltimore that have ensured that we continue to grow and prosper against enormous odds.
Together we are showing how one dedicated city employee, one innovative city agency, one passionate citizen and one unified city can make all the difference in the world. I ask you to join me today in looking the naysayers and skeptics in the eyes and reminding them that nothing is impossible to those who truly believe.
When people say we can't, the people of our city simply try a little harder. That's why we love Baltimore. If we put our minds to it, we can do anything! Thank you and God bless you and the city of Baltimore.
Now let's get to work!