Stressed out in the city

Stefan Martin

April 18, 1991|By Stefan Martin

DEAR Senators and Delegates:

Now that the 1991 session is over, you may feel that you managed to act on some of the important issues that came before you this year. But the view from here in Baltimore is that the themes of this session were the denial of problems, the forestalling of the inevitable and the avoidance of responsibility.

Allow me to articulate these feelings in a more specific way, from the point of view of people like me, people you ought to be listening to, who own homes and pay taxes and live by choice in a city of which we are proud: in other words, the people who will have to keep on living in Baltimore in order for it to continue living, in any sense of the word that matters.

There is a palpable sense these days in neighborhoods like Charles Village (where I and many of my friends have made their homes for years) that the rebirth of Baltimore has stalled, that we are not standing still but moving backward again, to a time when taxpayers were escaping the city nearly every day.

For several years now, legislators have shown scant interest in doing anything that would prevent a return to those days, and the reaction to this lack of interest has been predictable here in town. More and more people like me are talking about giving up the long fight (more than 20 years for some of us) to make Baltimore a great American city once again.

Lack of interest in what, you ask? Do you really not know? Interest in fair taxation for the homeowners of Baltimore. Interest in fair insurance rates for the citizens of Baltimore who own cars (most of us, since few can count on public transportation). Interest in making Baltimore safe so that people will visit and live here. Interest in supporting the school system at a level comparable to that of the counties in order to attract the middle class and, more important, help create the literate work force that the whole state needs. Interest in convincing the residents of the rest of the state that if Baltimore dies, the economy and culture of Maryland will slip deeper into illness.

I commend you for arranging the state takeover of the City Jail, and for the $10 million in assistance you managed to grant the city. But we all realize that these are temporary measures that do not address the root problem: an inequitable tax system based on jurisdictional accident, which compels the city and poorer counties to get from property taxes what they cannot get from the piggyback income tax.

You shelved legislation that came out of the Linowes report on taxation, many of you calling it a dead issue before it even could be discussed, and now you hope to let it die a quiet death in summer study. You thwarted another attempt to outlaw the setting of insurance rates on the basis of location, caving in once again to the heavy firepower of the insurance lobby. And when it came time to ban assault weapons in Maryland, you listened to the National Rifle Association, with its money and threats, rather than to our own police or to common sense.

So now, to give you a sense of what may be in store, let me present a possible, typical result of your inaction. I will soon take a job in a county of Maryland not far from Baltimore. While my salary at this new job doesn't go up, my property taxes, should I decide to own a house of equal value in this county, will be $800, rather than the $2,500 I pay now.

Should I set up residence there, the automobile insurance for our two cars will be almost $1,000 less per year than in Baltimore. In spite of the lower property tax rates, the public schools of the county can afford to spend far more per pupil than the city, and the quality of education that the county provides is subsequently better. So if I have children, I will not need to shoulder the added expense of private schools, something which many middle-class parents in Baltimore increasingly see as a necessity. Subtract, conservatively, another $6,000 per year for two children.

Why, then, would I not move, given what seems to be a choice between a less expensive, easier life and an increasingly expensive and difficult one here in Baltimore? Perhaps, in the buy-and-sell of today's politics, you have forgotten the notion of loyalty -- to place, to principles, to community -- which brought so many people like me back into Baltimore in the 1970s. We like it here, and the idea of a real, functioning city filled with neighborhoods that are alive and working thrills and attracts us. This loyalty has kept us here for these last 10 years, a decade in which the momentum of the 1970s seems to have diminished, perhaps evaporated completely.

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