A special taxing district in Charles Village was earnestly defended -- and attacked -- last night in a City Council committee hearing on the future of the North Baltimore urban experiment.
Grenville B. Whitman, a resident who has led a crusade against the Charles Village Community Benefits District, told the Urban Affairs Committee that its accomplishments in fighting crime and grime in the district's 100 square blocks are illusory -- not real.
Whitman -- who took pictures on Memorial Day to document trash in neighborhood alleys -- told the committee and other council members attending the session, "The benefits district could close up tomorrow and no one would really notice."
The benefits district was forged through a resident-voter referendum a decade ago in response to growing crime, sagging property values and unkempt streets. Home and business property owners agreed to pay a modest surtax to receive enhanced patrol and sanitation services.
Charles Village experienced an economic surge in the late 1990s, and increased its civic events such as a spring parade and Victorian garden tours. Its once-aloof institutional neighbor, the Johns Hopkins University, announced plans to build a "college town" retail area on East 33rd Street, anchored by a bookstore that university officials hope will become an informal bridge to the rest of the community.
Some point to those events as signs of progress.
Sandra Sparks, a resident and leader in the 1993 move to create the benefits district, said outside the hearing room it remains "an important mechanism for community revitalization."
Critics, including an alliance that identifies itself as residents of Peabody Heights -- the original name for much of the area -- contend that the involuntary tax of 12 cents per $100 of assessed value is unfair because there is no way out of paying it.
Whitman has also questioned the way some of the funds are spent, asking why the commuting of the acting benefits district director, Marta Howell, to and from Pennsylvania is subsidized.
Since yesterday's hearing was the only place in which to express views before a City Council vote on reauthorization of the benefits district, it was well-attended -- and fraught with sign-waving and acrimony. The council has not set a date for the vote.
Because of a mistake in drafting the law that created the district, the same City Council reauthorization process was played out a year ago. Since then, the district's president, Frank Jannuzi, and executive director, Daniel Klocke, have left.
Morgan Allyn, current president, said the district's work has not ended. She said of the opposition, "They don't want to help us improve, they just want us to go away."
Pamela Wilson, a critic, said the district should not be entrusted with public money. "It is time to end this failed pilot program and to take this burden of taxation off the back of the community," she said.
The council committee also held a less-contentious hearing last night to consider reauthorization of the Midtown Community Benefits District.