Another benefits district sought Tax zone would help troubled Park Heights augment city services

November 02, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Scarred by run-down houses, unemployment and a paucity of city services, Park Heights is the latest neighborhood hoping to tax itself into becoming a cleaner and safer community.

The Northwest Baltimore neighborhood is trying to put together money and residents' support to form a community benefits district, just as Charles Village, midtown and downtown areas have done to improve themselves.

"Some of the services we need are not all that forthcoming, and people to some degree need to be responsible for themselves," said Jean Yarborough, director of the Park Heights Networking Community Council.

Several things set Park Heights apart from the other communities that have formed benefits districts, which levy taxes on property owners to pay for police and sanitation services beyond those the city provides.

Residents of the community -- bordered by Northern Parkway on the north, Greenspring Avenue on the east, Druid Park Drive on the south and Wabash Ave. on the west -- are much poorer, the area has far fewer businesses, and the majority of the residents are black.

The Park Heights move signals disenchantment with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke from the kind of neighborhood that was the bedrock of his support in the last election.

Residents say they are disappointed with the mayor. "How long do we have to look out our windows and see trash all over the place and drugs sold at nearly every corner before someone downtown says, 'These people need help. These people are drowning,' " said Minnie Wilson, a longtime Park Heights resident who supports a benefits district.

Schmoke counters that residents aren't dissatisfied with his administration. Rather, he says, they realize that shrinking federal and state funding means neighborhoods have to be partners with government.

"It is a recognition that there needs to be more resources," Schmoke said. "It's just that [Park Heights] would rather control the resources."

Increasingly, neighborhoods and organizations throughout Baltimore are not even bothering to count on City Hall for help because Baltimore's money squeeze has left some neighborhoods to fend for themselves, some say.

Guilford has its own security force, as does Mount Vernon. Lower Park Heights has its own trash collection. The downtown benefits district is repairing sidewalks and curbs. Charles Village just took over a city recreation center.

Many city residents see it as their responsibility to help government; others see it as their burden in the absence of government help.

Lucille Wexler, a renter in Park Heights for eight years, said that although she doesn't have much discretionary income, she would be willing to pay a tax to clean up her neighborhood.

"We as black, low-income people need to realize that if we want some improvements to our neighborhoods, we have to be willing to do it," Wexler said. "If that means it will cost us more, then so be it."

If a benefits district is formed in Park Heights, community leaders say, it will increase residents' involvement, which they say has often been lacking.

Residents would vote on how much to tax themselves, where to spend the revenue and how to plan for the neighborhood.

For years in Park Heights, government programs have worked for a while but have not made a major difference over the long haul, community leaders say. For example, the city has given financial help to Parks Sausage Co., a major Park Heights business, hoping it would provide jobs for area residents. Recently, however, the company has laid off workers.

Few in Park Heights think that forming a community benefits district will be easy. The lack of money, not will, has been a stumbling block.

"My major task would be to figure out a budget to make this happen," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat who has taken the lead in drumming up support for the district.

Community meetings have been held, representatives from other city benefits districts have met with Park Heights community leaders, and a fund-raising effort has begun.

Marriott said she needs to raise about $50,000 for a referendum on the benefits district.

She said she would like to send the referendum to the City Council before it recesses in June. The council would have to vote on whether to approve the formation of the district.

"This can make sense to Park Heights," Marriott said. "We are kind of different [from the city's other poor neighborhoods] because we have commercial property, banks, supermarkets, a racetrack and Parks Sausages."

Marriott said she might have to go outside what is traditionally known as Park Heights for financial backing.

One target is Baltimore City Community College, near Park Heights.

James D. Tschechtelin, president of the college, was enthusiastic about the community's idea but said the school might not be able to afford to join the benefits district.

"I think we would want to take a look at it," Tschechtelin said. "But I wouldn't be optimistic."

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