Baltimore’s top three Democratic challengers lambasted Mayor Brandon Scott’s record Tuesday in what could be the final televised debate before next month’s primary election, casting him as an ineffective leader who has painted a portrait of improvement to mask a more complicated and stagnant on-the-ground reality.

But pointing to improvements in public safety, the local economy and the city’s vacant housing problem, Scott argued that Baltimore isn’t in a position to change hands just yet, and asked voters to allow him to “finish the job.”

More than once, Dixon — who finished in a close second to Scott in the Democratic primary four years ago — referred to the city as “filthy” and “dirty,” at one point even labeling it the “dirtiest city in America.” Wallace, a wealthy businessman who is largely self-funding his campaign, framed the state of Baltimore as a “crisis.” And Vignarajah, who has run in each of the last three election cycles, said both Scott’s and Dixon’s terms had been failures.

“You had your chance, you failed,” he said, enunciating each syllable into the microphone. “I won’t.”

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Hosted by WJZ-TV, WYPR and The Baltimore Banner the hour-long debate at the University of Baltimore touched on crime, housing, litter, Harborplace and other issues. Here’s what else the candidates said on Tuesday.

NIMBYism and affordable housing

Asked how much influence city residents should have over how much affordable housing should be built in their neighborhoods, all four candidates said city residents ought to be involved — though none offered any vision for how to make inroads when neighbors oppose new housing construction.

Dixon pointed to new subsidized housing projects in Uplands and Druid Hill that began under her tenure as mayor more than a decade ago as evidence of her commitment to housing supply and affordability. She said she would see to the creation of a land bank that would receive government money to seize vacant properties, clear the titles and transfer them to new stewards.

Vignarajah said he would reinstitute a version of the famed “dollar house” program, which enabled people to receive federally backed loans to take on housing renovation work in some Baltimore neighborhoods. He knocked the mayor for celebrating the progress on eliminating vacant and blighted housing when the number of homes and empty lots combined still total more than 35,000.

Wallace said he considers the city’s vacant housing stock an asset that can lure more entrepreneurs — and as a business leader, he said he had the skills to make the most of the opportunity.

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And Scott, pointing to his administration’s $100 million commitment in federal COVID-19 funds to housing programs and production, said he had joined with business leaders and community advocates to craft a vacant housing strategy that will add more money into distressed neighborhoods.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Scott said, “and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

City services

Responding to a question about the quality of city government services, Scott said when he came into office, Department of Public Works employees were still using paper maps in their vehicles.

Recycling had been suspended when he took office, he added, and workers were leaving in droves.

In the years since, Scott said he has tried to do the “right thing” with regards to improving the quality of government services. He supported raising workers’ wages, and some of the state’s largest labor unions have returned the favor by endorsing him. The administration also ordered a new vehicle fleet for DPW workers, he said, and all departments have begun to better assess and review performance data.

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His opponents, though, were quick to pounce, with Vignarajah calling service delivery “abysmal.”

Vignarajah said he would build an online tracker that would allow residents and city employees to watch services get delivered — or stalled — in real-time.

“I don’t expect all of you to be spending your nights watching the pothole tracker,” he said. “But I want my employees thinking you are.”

Dixon sideswiped Scott for allowing employees to work remotely a few days per week.

“It’s time for city employees to come back to work,” Dixon said. “It’s all about management and accountability.

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Leaning again on his business management experience, Wallace said he would “rebuild” city government — starting with the top job.

Missing HUD money

Dixon used some of her stage time to remind voters of one of the city’s most embarrassing episodes of the last four years — its accidental fumbling of more than $10 million in reimbursement money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Employees in the city’s homeless services offices locked themselves out of an electronic system needed to make reimbursement requests to HUD and, as a result, missed deadlines to get back funds they fronted to support housing services, a Baltimore Banner investigation found.

“We need to make sure that we do not lose federal funds that are given to the city,” Dixon said, answering a question about homelessness.

In rebuttal, Scott noted that he had used his relationships in federal government to personally appeal for another chance at securing the reimbursement. The city, he noted, is now in the process of recouping most of of the lost funds.

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A Baltimore Banner-Goucher College Poll survey released earlier this month found that the race remains close between Scott and Dixon, who have been battling for endorsements in the race’s final stretch. Scott has landed support over the last week from Baltimore’s historic Black newspaper, AFRO News, and several council colleagues, while Dixon has won over Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and Sheriff Sam Cogen.

In-person early voting begins Thursday. The primary election is on May 14.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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