Baltimore's nonprofits already pay fair share

May 10, 2001|By William A. Au

Mayor Martin O'Malley in part proposes to solve Baltimore's financial crisis with an 8 percent energy tax on all nonprofits, saying it's time they bear their fair share of the city's burden in exchange for city services.

All of the attention on this issue has focused on the large universities and hospitals. But the majority of the nonprofits that render vital services and provide social stability to our city are much smaller and operate on very tight budgets.

This includes most neighborhood churches, synagogues and mosques. The mayor's proposal would have a debilitating impact on most of these congregations. The average city church congregation is only a few hundred people.

As a pastor who works with many other clergy, I know we have been struggling with the recent increases in utility costs that have had a devastating impact on our operating budgets. The mayor's proposal to add another 8 percent to this burden is unconscionable.

If the City Council approves this proposal, it would be a major betrayal of the city's faith communities, which struggle under constant financial pressure to provide this city with much-needed services. The impact of this measure is compounded by the arrogance of the implication that it is time we pay our fair share of the city's burden.

In many of our city's poorest neighborhoods, the local church is the only institutional anchor. Church-based programs, such as Child First, provide after-school programming for thousands of Baltimore's neediest children. Every month another 3,000 young people are taken off the streets through the Kidz Nite Inn program based in neighborhood churches.

In the Greater Homewood area, where I serve, our local interfaith alliance raises thousands of dollars a year to put books in our local schools' nonexistent libraries because the city can't afford to and the state won't. Similar faith community and school partnerships are struggling throughout our city to make up for the failure of government to adequately support urban public schools.

Thousands of people who can't find help to get food, buy medicine or pay utility bills find assistance in local faith communities. They provide, often without payment, their facilities for meetings of community and civic associations and such groups as Alcoholics Anonymousand Narcotics Anonymous.

Yet we are told that it's time for us to pay our fair share.

The truth is that, even with higher taxes, the city would not be able to pay to replace the human and community services provided by local faith communities. Thus, this proposed tax can only be interpreted as insulting and out of touch with reality.

Moreover, while larger nonprofits could make up an increased tax burden through increased fees for educational and medical services, local congregations only have one place to turn.

The proposed tax is a penalty on members of a church, synagogue or mosque -- the very people who already make possible the faith community's social outreach and who will also be paying the mayor's proposed higher personal income tax.

The proposed energy tax will be their added penalty for choosing to worship in Baltimore City. To many of us, this proposal has given new and very personal meaning to the adage that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Baltimore's faith communities are not oblivious to the city's financial needs and the need for brutal honesty in facing them. The hard truth, however, is that, with the loss of tax base that the city has suffered and the concentration of poverty within it, Baltimore will not be able to raise the money necessary to realistically address its needs without significant assistance from Annapolis.

If the state would assume its constitutional obligations to Baltimore in education, public health and safety, it would go far to ease the city's budgetary crisis.

The major ministerial alliances of the city have offered to work with the mayor and City Council in pushing the state to assume its responsibilities to the citizens of Baltimore.

It would be more constructive if the mayor and City Council would take up the faith community on its offer rather than try to balance the budget through taxation, which will financially break the backs of those institutions that contribute most to the stability of our city's neighborhoods.

The Rev. William A. Au is pastor of Saints Philip and James Roman Catholic Church.

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