David Warnock: If You Want a Tax Break, Build a Rec Center
In our ongoing series of interviews with Baltimore’s mayoral candidates, businessman David Warnock says he will focus on customer service at city hall and instituting a living wage for residents
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: This is Stephen Janis for the Real News Network. We’re here interviewing David Warnock as part of our series of interviews with mayoral candidates about specific policy issues and what they would do if they were elected. Thank you for doing this interview with us.
So just to start off, something that is a big issue, but maybe doesn’t get covered as much–and you’re a businessperson, you’re sort of talking about your business experience as being important to your candidacy. The city has the, double the highest tax rate, property tax rate, of any municipality or jurisdiction throughout the state. What do you think you’re going to do to sort of address that problem, or, or look at that? Because, you know, from a business perspective, how can a city function if it’s twice as expensive, fundamentally?
DAVID WARNOCK: Well, I mean, first and foremost, you know, we haven’t had audits of municipal functions since William Donald Schaefer was mayor. And I think that, you know, you can’t look at cutting taxes until you understand exactly what you’re spending money for. Gregory Thorton up at North Avenue found $3.6 million worth of annual expenses in ghost employees and spouses that weren’t spouses on the healthcare plan. That’s 36 teachers, by my math. You know, I just wonder how many teachers we’re going to find when we really do independent audits of our municipal functions.
JANIS: And Governor Hogan, Larry Hogan, came into town and, you know, said he’s going to put, like, $700 million, again in the form of tax breaks. And that’s sort of the way to address this, is to have sort of tax breaks for developers, TIFs, those kind of things. Where do you stand on tax breaks for developers, TIFs, the sort of tax policies that led to sort of what some say is a bifurcated tax system in the city?
WARNOCK: Well, you know, I’ve said to the development community, and I remember meeting with two of the major developers in, in Baltimore City, that–and saying that, you know, you cannot harvest the fruit of the Inner Harbor without planting seeds in East and West Baltimore. Those days have to end. And in my administration, if you get a TIF, or you get a PILOT, you get a rec center. And we’ll be clear about it, so that people can factor that in their return on capital analysis. But if you get a TIF or you get a PILOT, you get a rec center.
And it was interesting when I talked to the developers about that, they both sat back and they looked at me, and I thought, oh boy, you know, this isn’t going very well. And then they said the most interesting thing. They both moved forward and said, wow, nobody from the mayor’s office has ever asked us that before. So this election’s about bringing people together.
JANIS: Okay. So speaking of that, we, we have a serious crime problem in Baltimore. I mean, it’s no secret we’ve had 340 homicides. And the city budget, as you talked about, predominantly goes to public safety, some say to the detriment of the school system. You know, we put more money in policing than we do in schools. And we’ve asked every candidate this, what you would do to rebalance that, or if you think that should be rebalanced. Should more money go into schools, less into policing. What would be your formula for dealing with the criminal justice problem in this town?
WARNOCK: Well, clearly, you know, the crime problem needs to be attacked with a structural and a tactical approach. The tactical approach is we’re going to get more cops out of the cars. We’re going to get the cops–I like to say we’re going to have stop and talk as opposed to stop and frisk. We’re going to have more of our cops live in the city. We’re going to incentivize to live in the city. We’re going to have–obviously we’re going to have body cameras.
But I think that you need to think strategically. And a couple of things that–well, three things that I’ll mention strategically that I think will have a big impact in the long run. One, you know, we need to treat our police with respect. The conditions that we’re asking them to work under are deplorable. So I think that we need to restore and rehabilitate our district police offices, fix up the back of the house, make it respectful for our cops to work there. But of equal importance, turn the front of the house into a pal center and a community center. The architectural footprint is almost identical in most of our police district offices, right. Have free WiFi. So we turn the front of the house into a place of community engagement.
Second, we need to create a promote-from-within culture in the police department. We have to end the days when we go to Oakland to find the next chief of police. The same’s true in the fire department and the same’s true at North Avenue, by the way. You know, it’s not right that a mid-level person at the police department feels that there’s no way they can get the top job. And in all of my municipal functions, people will be evaluated on customer service as well as a promote-from-within culture.
And third, and most important, we need to create jobs. Because we will never truly solve our crime problem in this city until we put people to work.
JANIS: Well, how do–that’s a good question. Because how do we do that? I mean, you know, we talked to some economists about Governor Hogan’s proposals, which would be to give tax subsidies to people who would build buildings. But of course, that doesn’t address the problems of people.
So what is the long-term equation in terms of creating jobs in the city for you?
WARNOCK: Well, there’s a number of things. One, we need to remove the impediments that people have to getting jobs in the first place. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years as the chairman of the Center for Urban Families. I’ve been a passionate advocate of automatic expungement of non-convictions, for example. And a passionate advocate of understanding the skills that are necessary to put individuals to work. It’s what we do at the Center for Urban Families, give people the skill sets that they need to get in the workplace, and recognize that there are structural and frankly, in some, institutional racism that keeps people out of the workplace.
So we need to create programs to give people skills like we’re doing at Green Street Academy, the charter school I started. Not only are we creating certification programs for our kids at Green Street, we’re bringing the parents of our kids into Green Street to get certifications as well, to prepare them for a world of work.
And the other thing that we need to do is we need to have a mayor that is truly cheerleader-in-chief. I am very much looking forward to working with Hopkins, and University of Maryland, and Under Armour, and others, going out and talking to their suppliers. And being prepared with a team from the mayor’s office to say, what does it take to get your suppliers to move their manufacturing plant, or their regional headquarters, in Baltimore? And we’ll be prepared with a plan, if you just say you’ll do more business with them if they move to Baltimore, we’ll be prepared with a plan for what we would do for them if they move to our city. That’s the strategic approach to it.
JANIS: One thing that might be interesting strategically is, you know, the city’s public housing system has been under a microscope since revelations that workers were asking for sex in exchange for repairs. We have 11,000 units, one of the largest in the country. Number one, what would you do to fix that system? I know there’s a couple programs right now. And number two, if you were mayor, would Paul Graziano be fired? Or do you think he needs to go?
WARNOCK: Well, I mean, I’ve been public about the fact that, you know, Mr. Graziano would not have a place in my administration. But let’s talk about things that are more important. Things that are more important are respect, right. I, when I think about the mortgage and the rental discrimination in Baltimore, it disgusts me. And when I think about, back to your point about the housing department, the lack of respect and the lack of customer service that the housing department has, treats the people who live in this city, it also makes me disgusted. So again, back to my concept of customer service, the housing department in my administration will understand that its customers are the citizens of Baltimore.
Now, with respect to vacant housing, right, I look at vacant housing as a job creation opportunity. I started a company called Green JobWorks, run by Larry Lopez, 40 percent owned by the Center for Urban Families. We have 125 people doing demolition and remediation. We need to look at demolition and remediation as a job opportunity. You know, they tear down more houses in Detroit in a week than we do in a year. That’s an opportunity.
JANIS: So that would be something that [inaud.] of the vacants to value, or are you talking about something, a larger commitment?
WARNOCK: Absolutely a larger commitment.
JANIS: All right. Okay. There’s been a lot of talk about, you know, inequality and the tale of two cities. One solution, people say, is a living wage law. We have one now on the books for city contractors. Would you support a living wage, and if so what would that living wage be?
WARNOCK: I think there is a great deal of interest and a great deal of logic towards moving on a stepwise basis to a $15 an hour minimum wage. I think we can get there, and I think it makes sense. I don’t think that we can confuse moving to a $15 an hour minimum wage with a job creation strategy. You know, that’s a living wage creation strategy.
In my administration we are going to focus on both. We’re going to focus on a living wage strategy, and we’re going to focus on a job creation strategy. And if you look at the companies that I’ve started over the years, if you look at Towne Park, if you look at–well, we could list a lot of the companies, for-profit and not-for-profit. Green Street Academy, Center for Urban Families. Those companies have been companies that pay people a living wage. And we need to do that throughout our city.
JANIS: Now, you have loaned your campaign $1 million. You now lead the whole pack with the amount of money you have. You know, what do you say to people who say, well, he just loaned himself–he’s a rich guy who’s trying to become mayor who’s buying his way into Maryland, who would be critical of that. What would you say to that sort of concern, that you haven’t raised your money grassroots, but raised it through your own pocket?
WARNOCK: You know, I’d say two things. One, this is the–this is one of the most important investments that I’ve ever made. I believe in this city. I really do believe that we can write the greatest turnaround story in America. And that investment that I made in my campaign is all about my belief that we really can effect structural and lasting, sustainable change in Baltimore.
The other thing I’d say is thank you. I mean, thank you to the hundreds of people who’ve invested in my campaign. We’ve had literally hundreds of people who’ve invested in our campaign, from anywhere from $5 to the maximum of $6,000. So you know, one of the things that I couldn’t be more happy about is the level of enthusiasm and the level of commitment from people all over Baltimore, and the vision that I have for this great city.
JANIS: Okay. Well, thank you very much, Mr. Warnock. We really appreciate you talking to us. It was great to hear from you.
WARNOCK: Thanks, good to–yeah, nice to see you.
JANIS: And that’s the end of our interview. We’ll be talking to him throughout the campaign, as the campaign heats up. This is Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
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