City gains sympathy in Annapolis

April 18, 1994

While Maryland has grown wealthier, its largest city, Baltimore, has grown poorer. Not only does it have a high concentration of families on welfare among its population of 730,000 people but also some 30,000 heroin addicts and 10,000 cocaine addicts. Because many of the addicts use intravenous needles to get their "fix," HIV infection is a time bomb waiting to go off. Baltimore is one of four cities in America where AIDS is the leading cause of death for people ages 25 through 44.

This situation is the reason Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke submitted a seemingly skimpy -- but controversial -- legislative agenda for lawmakers to consider in Annapolis this past winter. Instead of money, he asked the General Assembly to give Baltimore the authority to start a program that would let addicts exchange the syringes they use for clean ones. If dirty needles are not shared, fewer people should contract the AIDS virus.

Against long odds, the initiative was endorsed by initially hostile or skeptical lawmakers. The measure now awaits the signature of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The needle exchange bill was just one example this year of how easy legislators found it to feel sympathy toward Baltimore City as long as it did not involve much new money. Other examples involved passage of bills authorizing:

* "Tax increment financing," which enables the city to engage in development projects by selling bonds that are redeemed from taxes collected on the growth in value of the development itself. Maryland counties have had this financing ability for the past decade.

* The creation of a special tax district in Charles Village to improve security and supplement public maintenance. A total of five other such districts can be established in the city on an experimental basis. The authorization will remain in force for three years.

* Tax credits for first-time buyers of rehabilitated, formerly vacant dwellings or newly constructed dwelling units in the city.

The measure with the greatest potential economic impact, though, is one that makes it possible for landlords to buy insurance even if their older rental properties have lead paint in them. If this compromise measure works the way it is intended to, it ought to slow down or eliminate the abandonment of marginal properties by landlords who could not get them insured against poisoning claims by tenants.

The city got some modest new money from Annapolis, too. But this session showed that many Baltimore problems require sympathy -- and enabling legislation -- as much as money.

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