A small-town approach to big-city ills Midtown tax district aims to fund services government can't

3rd such effort in Baltimore

Board hopes to learn from experiences of two other enclaves

April 22, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Ten years after trading a 100-acre horse farm in Baltimore County for a Mount Vernon Square apartment, Beverly Fuller is the leader of the latest grass-roots experiment to improve the quality of life in the city.

On July 1, she will begin overseeing spending of $635,945 -- funds from taxes agreed to by the residents of Mount Vernon-Belvedere, Bolton Hill, Madison Park and Charles North for extras the city cannot afford. The dollars began flowing April 1.

Surrounded by 700,000 city residents, she sees a small town. And she, members of the board of the Midtown tax district and staff will have to make small-town decisions: Should they buy 50 weed whackers or hire extra security guards, for instance.

"You're kind of in that small-town government where you are helping to shape what's happening," Ms. Fuller says. "The merchants know you by name and you want to patronize them because they are a part of something you're a part of."

Midtown, with a population of 13,000, becomes the third such Baltimore tax district, allowing residents to choose and oversee extra neighborhood services. It follows the Charles Village district, which began last summer, and the 3-year-old Downtown Partnership.

"The concept, we know, works," Ms. Fuller said. "The hard part is tailoring it to the needs of our neighborhoods."

What will it mean? Safer, cleaner streets, she hopes. But she refuses to promise everything to everybody. One of her first decisions as executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District was to chop its 21-item priority list in half.

That doesn't mean she isn't listening. Midtown organizers have polled residents and held town meetings. They have picked the brains of residents of the other two tax districts to learn what works, what doesn't and why.

Nobody will venture to predict success at this stage. Everybody seems aware of how difficult it is to please constituents.

Mixed reviews

After nearly a year, the reviews are mixed in Charles Village. Some residents say the streets are cleaner, others call them a disgrace. Some say the neighborhoods are safer, others insist that crime is taking over. Some believe the business districts are getting all the attention, while the residential areas get ignored.

Tracy Durkin, executive director of the Charles Village district, says crime has dropped 5 percent and notes that residents have received 3,000 escorts from security officers.

Her advice to Midtown: "Don't oversell the program."

She becomes impatient with residents who suggest they should be getting "a maid service every day and their own private security service."

Ray Everngam, a North Charles Street resident who thinks Charles Village's program has failed, adds this suggestion: "Identify a couple of goals straight off, then make sure you pull off the result."

Taking notes

As July nears, Ms. Fuller and her board are cobbling together ideas from both districts.

Many of the Midtown board members are professionals taking a layman's approach to fashioning public policy, albeit a scaled-down version. They have borrowed from the Downtown Partnership: Instead of employing a security firm for patrols, as so many neighborhoods have, they will hire and supervise their officers.

That way they can deal with problems more quickly, avoid middlemen and define the jobs on their terms.

They hope to duplicate Charles Village's extensive block captain program, which has led to a substantial corps of volunteers, whose work has stretched a limited budget.

They will devote a greater share of their dollars to cleanup than did Charles Village, where security costs left clean-up resources thin. In fact, Charles Village is rethinking its safety program and has decided against renewing its contract with Wackenhut Security, although the directors say they have no complaints about the service.

Outlook

By late summer in Midtown, ombudsmen should be in place -- taking reports of problems and talking to city officials on residents' behalf about potholes, poorly maintained property, drug trafficking or the bulk trash pickup that passed them by. Officers will escort residents between their homes and cars on request in the evenings. Beautification projects may evolve from neighborhood competitions. People fulfilling public service sentences for crimes may supply free labor for cleaning parks, trimming ivy and planting flowers.

"This is a social experiment worth trying," said board member John Dennick, who lives in Bolton Hill. "If we didn't do something, things would just get worse."

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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