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In the Media: Cuts Proposed to Charm City Circulator; OSI Plans to Set Goals for Baltimore Officials

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A digest of Baltimore news from local sources.

From the Baltimore Sun: Cuts proposed again to Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator

"Less than a year after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expanded the Charm City Circulator and reversed a plan to eliminate some free bus routes, her administration introduced a plan Wednesday to scale back the service.

"The proposal would eliminate the Banner route between the Inner Harbor and Locust Point, which was targeted for elimination last year, and cancel the northward expansion of the Purple route to the Johns Hopkins University, which began just nine months ago.

"It would also shut down the Green route, which connects the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, Fells Point and downtown.

"The administration proposed the changes, which would take effect in January, to cover a $6 million budget shortfall.

"Rawlings-Blake had allocated the money in this year's spending plan, but it was contingent on the City Council agreeing to a 4 percent increase in the parking tax at the city's public parking garages.

"City Council President Bernard C. 'Jack' Young and other council members have opposed that increase, saying the council agreed in 2013 not to raise the parking tax until 2020. A bill introduced by the Rawlings-Blake administration in May has not received a hearing.

"'Considering the fact that the city entered into an agreement when we last raised the parking tax, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to backtrack and break that agreement,' said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman.

"A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said the city cannot otherwise afford the Circulator in its present form.

"'The mayor is dedicated to providing this service and is willing to make the tough financial decisions to meet the goals of the Circulator and keep it operating,' spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. 'But we can't continue to absorb these costs. It is fiscally irresponsible.'

"Baltimore officials have long squabbled over how to pay for the Circulator, a popular free bus system launched in 2010 by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon that is used by more than 4 million people each year.

"The service costs the city about $14 million per year. It is funded by state and other grants, and by the sale of advertising on the buses. The system has also received federal funding.

"City Councilman Brandon Scott has advocated charging $1 per ride to offset the Circulator's costs. The service's deficit has grown to more than $11 million.

"Scott said he would have voted against an increase in the parking tax to pay for a free bus service that, while popular, serves only a portion of the population.

"'We cannot get around the fact that Circulator only operates in a specific part of the city and the average citizen cannot walk outside their door and catch a free bus,' he said.

"He said the city has too many other responsibilities to be operating the Circulator at a loss.

"'I'll consider raising the parking tax if they consider charging for the bus,' he said. 'Until then, I don't want to hear a peep about Circulator.'

"Councilman Eric Costello said the lack of a fare is part of the Circulator's appeal. He cited a 2014 study commissioned by the city that found that charging passengers could result in the service losing grant money and ridership.

"Costello and neighborhood leaders in his district lobbied Rawlings-Blake last year to reverse course on the plan to cut the Banner route. The route was created with a federal grant as a temporary link between the Inner Harbor and the 2012 Star-Spangled Spectacular events but has become popular with Locust Point residents."

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From the Baltimore Sun: Baltimore County Council to hear testimony on housing voucher bill on Thursday

"Baltimore County Council members will hold a public hearing Thursday on a bill that would ban housing discrimination against people with government housing vouchers.

"The housing discrimination bill will be among several items discussed at a council work session that will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Historic Courthouse, 400 Washington Ave. in Towson.

"The bill, proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, would bar landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants based on their source of income. While the bill is written broadly, the goal is to stop discrimination against people who have housing vouchers, commonly called Section 8.

"Currently, landlords can decide whether or not to accept housing vouchers as a form of payment. Baltimore County has about 6,200 vouchers, funded by the federal government.

"The bill has drawn support from faith groups and organizations that advocate for the homeless and the poor. It is opposed by an association that represents landlords and property managers.

"The council is required to consider the bill as a result of a settlement of a housing discrimination complaint. To settle the complaint, Baltimore County also agreed to spend millions of dollars to induce developers to build affordable housing and to move poor tenants out of areas with concentrated voucher use into neighborhoods with few vouchers.

"If the bill does not pass but gains at least three votes on the seven-member council, it must be reintroduced next year. If the bill gets two or fewer votes, it won't be reintroduced after the next round of elections in 2018.

"Following Thursday's work session, council members are scheduled to vote on the bill on Aug. 1."

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From the Baltimore Sun: Open Society Institute plans to set goals for new Baltimore elected officials

"A Baltimore nonprofit plans to bring together city government leaders, activists and community members to create goals for city officials who take office after the November general election.

"The Open Society Institute-Baltimore will announce a 'Solutions Summit' Thursday, a Nov. 12 meeting where participants will craft a plan for jobs, criminal and juvenile justice and behavioral health, among other issues.

"Organizers said they hope to channel civic interest following the Nov. 8 election into real progress for the city.

"'There is so much attention on the election and so much focus on Baltimore after the uprising,' said Evan Serpick, the nonprofit's spokesman. 'We really just don't want to lose that energy.'

"Four co-chairs with ties to the city will lead the initiative: Kurt L. Schmoke, University of Baltimore president and former mayor of Baltimore; Mary Miller, a former U.S. Treasury leader; Eddie Brown, CEO of Brown Capital Management; and Mark R. Fetting, former CEO of Legg Mason.

"Diana Morris, director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said she hopes the summit will help make residents from different neighborhoods more aware of each other, particularly the different living conditions they face.

"She hopes the dialogue will not just bring residents together, but lead to change.

"'We want to focus particularly on those things that the mayor and City Council have the ability to either move on or influence significantly,' Morris said.

"Donald F. Norris, director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County's School of Public Policy, applauded the intent of the program but said he was skeptical it would lead to results."

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