In the right direction

March 22, 2005

A 2-CENT savings on Baltimore's property tax rate may seem like a pittance, but any reduction benefits the city's aspirations. A cautionary note: The tax cut, proposed for each of the next five years, will have to be reassessed every year. Nothing is guaranteed.

City residents are already paying for the proposed property tax cut through higher energy and cell phone taxes approved by the O'Malley administration last year. City officials had estimated an increase from $14.6 million to $25.2 million in energy tax revenues. And that number is expected to grow further in the coming fiscal year because nonprofit organizations and institutions will be paying the tax for a full year for the first time.

And don't forget the soaring assessments and higher tax bills for many homeowners that will only slightly be offset by the 2-cent cut in Baltimore's rate, $2.328 per $100 of assessed value.

But all in all, Mayor Martin O'Malley is doing the right thing. It's tough to sell Baltimore to outsiders when surrounding counties have property tax rates that are half the city's. Given Baltimore's array of social service needs, the city serves those least able to provide for themselves while at the same time maintaining a respectable level of service for all its residents.

Cutting the tax rate over time affords city officials the opportunity to provide relief at a steady but responsible pace. The city is enjoying success on several fronts - a strong housing market, a consistent drop in violent crime and a leveling off of population loss. The tax rate cut - the first since 1999 - will contribute further to those successes.

Politicians love to cut taxes as much as they hate to raise them. Mr. O'Malley is no different on that count than other elected officials, be they Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who also proposed a 2-cent property tax rate cut, or Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. A tax cut makes sense only if services don't suffer.

Republican critics of Mr. O'Malley ascribe political motives to his decision to cut the tax rate. But his support for lowering the city's tax rate predates his election as mayor and his interest in running for governor.

Certainly, tax cuts alone won't increase Baltimore's attractiveness as a city in which to live and work. But they're a smart way of improving the larger package.

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