Jon Bombach is a Libertarian candidate, running for Baltimore City Comptroller.
(additional reporting by Christian Bielski)
Q: Background info
I’ve lived in and around Baltimore since I was five; my family is originally from Mexico. For the last thirteen years I’ve lived in the Pen Lucy community on the Old York Rd. corridor.
I have an extensive background in Finance, having worked in both the private and public sector to bring financially troubled organizations back onto solid financial ground. I did my under-graduate work in Financial Economics and Mathematical Statistics at University of Maryland, and my graduate degree, from the University of Baltimore, is in Quantitative Finance.
Perhaps most relevant to the role of City Comptroller, I’ve also been a small business owner in Baltimore. I have first-hand experience with the difficulties that business owners are confronted with –and much of that is caused or made worse by the City administration.
Q: Do you think there are ‘Two Baltimore’s’? Why or why not? If so, how would you try to reconcile them?
I think a lot of people believe there are “Two Baltimore’s’, for understandable reasons. Those who are doing well might even find the idea comforting on some level. But the reality is we are all neighbors and we succeed or fail as one City.
For too long City Hall has pursued policies that deepen the divides in our City. Some communities are accommodated while others are frankly neglected. Funds are focused on areas that are imagined to have potential (often based on the opinion of politically connected developers and contractors) and this exacerbates our current disparate condition.
We need to provide the foundations for success across the City –with less focus on immediate or short term Return On Investment – not just in areas where politically connected individuals happen to live or want to do business.
Q: Were you for or against the proposed Red Line? Why or why not?
A well-functioning Transit system is an essential part of economic development. The Red Line plan in theory would accomplish some goals, but I believe it could be accomplished in a more efficient manner. The idea of tunneling under downtown presented some significant risks that were often absent from the larger debate.
Instead of just cancelling the Red Line, we should investigate alternatives like a Tramway, Streetcars or possibly an elevated track. Each of these alternatives could be implemented via a phased-in approach that would expand over time to a “Hub and Spoke” system servicing all sections of the City.
Q: How would you help improve Baltimore’s transportation system?
Transit is crucial to urban areas, but it needs to be smart transit. The City Administration needs to use its position as the largest Economic driver in Maryland to leverage the MTA into better service for our communities. In the near term, bus routes, express routes and stops can be updated to optimize service delivery. Over the long term, a comprehensive analysis must be completed, to assess whether we are really delivering the best for our Customers – the residents of Baltimore City?
Another facet of transportation is our crumbling infrastructure and roadways. Too often the City takes a “patch and fix” approach instead of keeping our roadways on a lifecycle and replacing components before they have reached the end of their useful life.
An important part of the Comptroller’s duties is to monitor departmental performance and how effectively they are planning and executing projects. I suspect we can find areas in the City Department of Transportation that have room for improvement.
Q: How often would you like to see City agencies audited? Which department do you think is the worst offender in avoiding audits?
Ideally, we should have annual audits. But that is probably not realistic in the near term, so I would set a goal of audits every two years. Drastically improving the frequency and quality of our audits is critical to identifying problem areas and developing corrective action plans. Comparable sized cities like St. Louis and Kansas City manage to accomplish bi-annual audits with 1/3 of the staff Baltimore Comptroller’s has. So I don’t believe its lack of resources or personnel, it’s a lack of leadership.
It has been twenty years since the City has had a comprehensive audit, and that makes it is very difficult to say, with certainty, which departments are the most in need of reform. With such little credible information, I’d advise beginning with those Departments that have substantial budgets, significant risks, and the most direct impact on our communities.
Q: How would you propose to make the Charm City Circulator cost effective? Do you agree with the DOT of Baltimore eliminating the Banner and Green lines?
Implementing project management best practices will aid in controlling the cost of operations. The larger issue is the lack of revenue. The Circulator has no fare charge, and so we have to develop alternative revenue streams.
Expanding private-public partnerships with businesses along the routes would provide additional revenue, along with broader secondary economic benefits. A focus on boosting ad sales is important for increasing cash flows as well.
Given the track record, it’s likely that a detailed analysis can uncover other means of cutting costs through project controls, as mentioned, and conditional assessments, rather than reducing service. But in all honesty, that cannot be said for certain without the proper due diligence.
Q: What was going through your mind during the unrest of April 2015?
In some respects – sad as it is to say – the unrest was not entirely surprising. When communities are neglected for decades, they will make their voices heard one way or another. Certainly, there are far reaching socio-economic and systemic factors that have created this situation, beyond just the City of Baltimore. But for too long career politicians in the City have only addressed the needs of those who have something to offer them personally. Folks that get into office and then spend 20 and 30 years walled off from the community they are supposed to represent. That’s not moving Our City forward.
The primary issue that led to the unrest had to do with the relationship between police and community –and this has to do with audits as well, since Police Department performance is part of that. But this is also part of a larger story, where too many neighborhoods in Baltimore are not provided with the basic services and essentials that allow them to create thriving communities.
This should have been a wake-up call, and I hope it has been. I’m encouraged by an awaking of political and social engagement that I sense as I campaign throughout Baltimore. And I think we have a unique opportunity for change right now. I’m hoping to be proven correct on November 8th.
Q: Now that the trials of the Baltimore Six are over, and all have been acquitted, how can Baltimore heal?
There are so many practical ideas that can readily be implemented by City Hall to begin the healing process. We need to bring the public into the conversation as we assess and develop reforms for the Police Department (and all departments).
We need to revisit “use of force” policies, and address the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. City Hall must begin crafting policies that are inclusive instead of just paying lip service to vague concepts like community policing.
This relates directly to the Comptroller’s office as well. As we make outcome-based assessments of the performance of City government, we must include more feedback from the community, as well as making proposed changes available to the public as they are being considered.
Our failure to address community needs and concerns are costly from both an investment and human perspective. When voices are heard and the community feels there is accountability, we will be able to heal and move forward.
Q: Do you support the Port Covington TIF? Why or why not? What did you think of BUILD’s concerns about the TIF? Do you agree with Councilman Stokes measure to delay the approval of the TIF?
The rapid speed and manner in which the City approved the Port Covington deal was troubling to me. The deal may be good for the City as its proponents claim, but without the proper analysis and due diligence, it’s very hard to say. And to be frank, the City’s track record in this respect does not inspire confidence.
The $660m dollar subsidy has very significant and far-reaching implications for the next 30 years. City Hall and the BDC claim the deal was vetted in ten days –longer than it often takes for them to sort out a water bill.
Additionally, the City used MuniCap –the contractor that evaluated the Harbor Point deal – to perform the analysis. That deal turned out to have significant costs not factored in and rosy cash flow projections that have not materialized.
In that regard, I support any measure to delay the Port Covington deal, and I’d hope it could stand on its merits, based on thorough (and transparent) analysis. If it can’t, then it should be sent it back to the drawing board.
Q: Light City was a huge success for Baltimore this past year. How would you help cultivate the Arts & Entertainment districts around the city?
City Hall needs to create a friendly environment for all small startups whether they be Arts & Entertainment, restaurants or any other small business. To spur innovation and creativity, we need to provide basic services and tools (address the foundation of the hierarchy of needs) along with reducing structural barriers to creating inspirational endeavors and experiences like Light City.
The City Administration has historically made it very cumbersome and difficult to get a new venture off the ground. Onerous permitting processes and antiquated licensing practices make Entrepreneurs jump through too many hoops. We have to keep in mind that some of our most creative minds may not be those that are best suited to dealing with procedures and red tape. We have to make it easier.
We should be nurturing and cultivating the creators in our City so that, firstly, they stay here, and they can help us build a future beyond what we can imagine.
Q: There is a $15 minimum wage bill coming before the City Council. Do you support it, why or why not? If not, what wage would you support?
Simply put, my view is that $15 minimum wage bill should be decided at the State level. If it goes into effect only in the City, we will put Baltimore businesses at a disadvantage, as they will be competing against County businesses that don’t face the same cost constraints. The last thing we need is more companies leaving the City.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in Baltimore?
The biggest challenge is the breaking through the “way things have always been done”. Too many elected officials have been in office too long. This is evidenced by stale ideas on moving the City forward.
It’s time to stop City Hall from holding the City back. We have strong people, people who care and are really trying to make things better but all too often the City administration gets in the way.
It is time to start fresh. We must address the structural failures in our school system, tackle the crumbling streets and infrastructure, and get our financial house in order. There are many challenges, but as I have said, we are at a unique moment. With real leadership and community based support, we can turn the tide.
Q: What is ONE core issue you will fight for if elected?
Audits. So many of Baltimore’s issues are rooted in murky finances and opacity in our processes. Until we can measure progress, track where the dollars are going and assess whether strategies are working or not, we will never be able to make the needed changes.
By modernizing our financial systems we will be able to monitor, in real time, the budget status, project progress, and how effectively tax dollars are being spent. Then informed corrective actions have to be be developed to optimize performance. That is how any well-functioning organization works, but unfortunately City Hall has not been subject to the same level of accountability.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
If you’re satisfied with the current trajectory of the City, by all means vote for the 20 year incumbent. But if you want to fix things, bring transparency and accountability to our finances and begin the tough process of revitalizing our City – I encourage you to give my platform a closer look.
It’s time we change how City Hall does business, and that’s what I bring to the table – a strong understanding and background in financial management, ideas from the modern economy and a profound commitment to tackling the many tough problems we face.
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