Choking the city

November 16, 1990

The city of Baltimore has been backed into an untenable corner by the property tax rebellions in the surrounding counties. With Baltimore County committed to a 4 percent cap on property assessment increases and sentiments for similar reductions in Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll, there is a stronger economic incentive than ever for the middle-class to flee the city with its onerous $5.95 tax rate and assessment tax increases that could run as high as 10 percent a year.

With the city pressed for tax dollars it may seem ill-advised to cut the tax rate and cap assessments to be competitive with the counties. But without such measures, Baltimore risks losing more of its already-diminished middle-class population. As such, Mayor Schmoke's newly announced support of a 4 percent assessment cap in the city is a key part of a long-term strategy -- particularly if it is linked with even a perfunctory tax-rate cut -- though some council members are rightly cautious about embracing it.

A 4 percent cap could cost the city $2.5 million in revenue loss, and Schmoke was vague about just how the city could absorb such a blow. Still, he is correct to recognize that somehow it must. There are a number of new taxes and fees the city itself might pursue. But Baltimore's best hope lies in its delegation fighting hard in the next General Assembly session for relief -- the sentiment among many state lawmakers to help the city and the pending recommendations of the Linowes Commission report hold great potential.

Schmoke's stand may turn out to be a politically risky one. But the only way the city's fiscal health can be restored is to give those middle-class residents who are still here an incentive to stay, and those who have left an incentive to come back. Competitive property taxes would be a solid start.

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