Fells Point debates tax to add desired services Benefits: Homeowners and merchants want a safer, cleaner neighborhood. But some residents don't think they can afford a community district levy.

January 04, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Fells Point could become the latest Baltimore neighborhood to adopt a self-imposed tax that would be used to hire street sweepers and security patrols.

These days, much of the talk in the historic waterfront neighborhood centers on whether the creation of a community benefits district, which would levy a tax on property owners, is the best way to improve Fells Point's appearance and decrease crime in the area.

Such districts have been formed in Charles Village and the city's midtown and downtown areas. Residents of the Park Heights neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore are trying to muster support for the additional tax.

In Fells Point, proponents of the benefits district may have difficulty garnering enough support to pass the tax. Many homeowners in the community are elderly and on fixed incomes.

"It's going to be hard to sell the concept here," said Alicia Horn, who has lived above her Aliceanna Street shop for 17 years. "We have a lot of elderly people living in the area who have big houses, but very little cash. The last thing they need is another tax."

But some community leaders say the advantages of the additional tax could outweigh the financial burden it would impose.

"Trash is picked up twice a week, and recycling is done once a week, but with so many visitors coming to the area, we need additional services," said Avril Haines, president of the Fells Point Business Association. "We need help with bulk trash and cleaning up the streets. Sunday morning cleanup can be pretty intense."

The Preservation Society of Federal Hill and Fells Point estimates that nearly 1 million people visit Fells Point each year to drink and dine in the neighborhood taverns and browse through the area's many antiques shops. The large volume of foot traffic in the 19th-century community of brick rowhouses has many residents calling for increased police patrols and additional security forces.

"We have a Citizens on Patrol group, but they are all volunteers," Haines said. "The special funding we would receive through the [benefits] district would enable the community to hire personnel and buy equipment, like walkie-talkies and beepers. "

Increasingly, neighborhoods and organizations are taking on the responsibility of caring for their communities instead of relying on City Hall.

Even some areas that have not set up special taxing districts have collected voluntary payments to help with security and sanitation.

Like many city residents, Jennifer Etheridge, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, said there's "no way" she'd support a tax increase if the money went into the city's general tax coffers.

But she said she might be willing to pay for security patrols and street sweepers hired by a neighborhood group.

"It's obvious that something needs to be done," said Etheridge, who has lived in the waterfront community for four years. "I am personally happy to pay more money if it will help the area."

For Etheridge, the central issue is whether a benefits district is the best way to pay for the additional services the neighborhood needs.

"I'm on the fence right now about the benefits district," Etheridge said. "I need more information. Part of me thinks, why should we have to pay extra for services the city should be providing?"

Etheridge said it might be better to establish a retail business district license (RBDL) area.

In a retail business district, each neighborhood business pays a fee based on its size. City Hall takes 3 percent of the money and gives the rest to the association that represents the businesses, which decides how to spend the money. The per-business fee in the city's nine RBDL areas averages $210 a year.

The concept of a retail business district has been debated in Fells Point since March. More than 80 merchants -- many from the area north of Aliceanna Street -- signed a petition this summer opposing an RBDL.

"I was opposed to the RBDL, and I'm opposed to the benefits district," said Horn. "We already have a lot of police enforcement and a lot of promotion. What we need is parking, which the city promised us but we never got."

Horn questions whether Fells Point would be able to raise the money needed to start a community benefits district. It took more than $70,000 to get the midtown benefits district off the ground.

"If you look at the history of Fells Point, I don't think you could get that kind of support," Horn said. "A lot of the newcomers oppose anything the business community wants to do."

If a benefits district is established, property owners would be required to pay an additional 30 cents for each $100 of assessed xTC property value, which would raise the typical tax bill in the district by about $200 a year. Fifty-eight percent of the property owners in the neighborhood would have to approve the additional tax.

Organizers of other benefits districts say that the gains are worth the cost.

"[Benefits districts] are an excellent organizing tool, particularly for business communities, enabling them to come together and focus on the provision of very specific, usually highly tangible and visible services," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, which oversees the downtown benefits district.

In the midtown area, residents say they see an improvement with the benefits district. In November, crime fell about 12 percent compared with the same period last year.

"Residents are very happy with the services," said Richard Morris, director of community safety for the midtown district. "They can notice the difference every day. The streets are measurably cleaner and safer."

Leaders of the business and homeowners associations in Fells Point said after discussion of the pros and cons of a benefits district, they will decide whether to move forward.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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