Suit filed against Charles Village district

Plaintiffs seek tax refund, want group disbanded

August 20, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In protest to what some have called a pioneering urban model in reducing crime and grime, six Charles Village residents have filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court challenging the city's right to collect a special benefits tax from them.

Each plaintiff wants a refund from the Charles Village Community Benefits District. They also want the benefits organization, whose mission is to create safer and cleaner streets, disbanded.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council are named as defendants, as is the North Baltimore organization. The mayor and City Council approved the organization for a one-year renewal in June, a move that has become a point of contention.

The suit questions whether the city's renewal was valid under state law, not whether a grass-roots effort has the right to impose a community tax.

"We're trying to hold the city to its own laws in the reauthorization, which call for either a four-year extension or dissolution," said Riddell L. Noble, a longtime Charles Village resident who is the lead plaintiff named in the suit. "We contend the one-year extension was illegal and therefore the benefits district ceased to exist at the end of June permanently."

City officials and benefit district leaders said that the one-year extension was a bridge designed to correct a mistake made by the state legislature in drafting a statute several years ago.

"The long and short of it is that the state legislature language inadvertently used the date 2003, while the city charter said 2002," said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.

Zollicoffer said city lawyers would take the case, since the legal department suggested the one-year stopgap.

"We stand ready and willing to defend their right to exist, at least until the end of the year," Zollicoffer said.

First established by local popular vote and state law in 1995, the local village authority collects a tax from all property owners within a 100-square- block area.

For every $100,000 in property value, a resident or business owner pays $120 into a common fund, which pays for sanitation and security services beyond what the city provides.

During the past year, a small backlash has arisen against the benefits district, community leaders said.

Sharon L. Guida, a lawyer and the vice president of the Charles Village group, said yesterday, "We will ... continue the progress the community has made over the last seven years against a lawsuit brought by a handful of malcontents who would rather destroy than participate."

Representatives of four communities and three business organizations within the district sit on the group's board.

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