Charles Village leaders to defend benefits district

They say system keeps crime and grime down

some call it undemocratic

April 16, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The pioneering Charles Village Community Benefits District - in the neighborhood of brightly painted Victorian houses and free spirits - will defend its record of fighting crime and grime tonight at a public forum expected to attract critics who say the organization is undemocratic.

A town meeting moderated by resident and former National Public Radio host Lisa Simeone will be held at 7 p.m. at the Homewood Friends Meetinghouse at 3107 N. Charles St.

The organization's leaders will use the event to rally the support of the residents and merchants who voted overwhelmingly in 1994 to pay an extra tax for more services than the city provides. The district is up for reauthorization in a bill introduced to the City Council last night by the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The emphasis of this unusual civic experiment - it was the first benefits district for a residential neighborhood in Baltimore - foreshadowed O'Malley's 1999 campaign cry to fight crime and improve sanitation.

But a circle of critics views the mandatory tax and the governance structure as downright undemocratic.

Pamela Wilson, who is on a committee working against the renewal of the benefits district, points out that 15 of the 19 voting members of the board are not elected.

Wilson lives on 27th Street, in an area she and some neighbors prefer to call Peabody Heights, the original name before it became known as Charles Village.

"This was a pilot program we have to live with, but some believe it is thoroughly ineffectual," said Wilson, who served a short stint on the board. Noting there is no referendum on its second reauthorization, she said, the organization amounts to taxation without direct representation.

Proponents say there is a consensus that the 100-square-block area in North Baltimore has turned around significantly in the past decade. Then, garbage was strewn in alleys, and crime was abundant - culminating in the Christmas-week slaying of an engineer at Whitman Requardt and Associates, a major employer that has since moved to the city waterfront.

That was the catalyst for starting the organization, said Tom Shafer, a founder, now retired from Whitman Requardt. "We [the firm] had to make a decision to stay or leave the city," he said.

Many Charles Villagers say morale is better, streets are cleaner and housing prices are higher. "It's proven itself a positive force," said Steven Rivelis, a campaign consultant who has lived in his tall Victorian house since 1989.

"It's a really exciting time with recreation leagues, a June festival and parade, three-story houses on St. Paul Street selling for more than $200,000, " said John Spurrier, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, a separate entity. A 15-year resident, community leader and real estate agent, he said "I don't think we should mess with a complex equation."

The board president, Frank Jannuzi, 37, moved to Guilford Avenue in 1991. When the benefits district was originally proposed, he was against it, but changed his mind when a "sunset" provision was added, requiring a reauthorization every four years.

"I was converted," Jannuzi said.

The neighborhood has improved since the benefits district was created, with a community garden replacing a heroin shooting gallery, said Jannuzi, a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"At some point, our goal is to be so damn successful that we'll be out of business," he said.

Tonight's town meeting is designed, in part, to address concerns of residents who have felt shut out of its decision-making and improve its public outreach.

"We've done a good job in service, but not as good a job in communication," Jannuzi said.

Each property owner pays 12 cents on every $100 of assessed value of his or her home or business real estate, which is expected to raise $341,000 this fiscal year. The rest of the group's $772,000 budget comes from public funds and private grants.

The organization has 17 full-time employees, including a retired Baltimore City police officer, Jerry Busnuk, as director of field operations. Headquarters is at 23rd and North Charles streets, and the district fields a team of seven civilians who patrol in uniform. Crime in the district has fallen, as it has in most parts of the city.

Grenville B. Whitman, a longtime resident, said he doubts that the safety team does much to reduce crime and believes the district's resources would be better spent in hiring community organizers.

In 1995, Tracy Durkin, the first executive director, said the racially diverse neighborhood "came together from down and out to up and coming."

At the first open meeting, she said, people voted, using Popsicle sticks to indicate their preference on how to divide the group's resources between safety and sanitation programs.

"People wanted visible uniforms," said Durkin, 37.

Baltimore Police Maj. Robert F. Biemiller, who for three years commanded the Northern District, which includes Charles Village, said the benefits district's extra patrol has been an asset.

"It's hard to prove a negative. But they were an extra set of eyes and ears out in the community," he said.

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