City loans, housing fund on ballot

November 06, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

After they finish picking candidates tomorrow, Baltimore voters must decide whether the city should borrow $120 million for new construction and whether to amend the city charter to create a fund that would be used to build affordable housing.

Arguing that the city's real estate boom is pricing middle-class homebuyers out of the market, City Council President Sheila Dixon pushed for the new affordable-housing program, which would set up a dedicated trust fund similar to those in Washington and New York.

"We have to make sure that we have a source that can really have an impact on making sure that our neighborhoods are diverse and affordable for populations who cannot necessarily afford a condo in the harbor," Dixon said. "We've never had a dedicated source that can help us in that effort."

The proposal is one of 12 ballot questions facing city voters this year, including eight that would let the city borrow $120 million over the next two years for new construction - from $36 million to improve city schools to $3.6 million for museum and tourist attractions.

Like a bank account with no money, the housing fund does not have a source of revenue. But it would allow the city to sock away money from a future tax or a portion of an existing tax. Dixon said Washington's fund, which was created in 1988, receives a slice of the recordation fee, which is charged when property changes hands.

Also on the ballot is a proposed charter amendment that would let the city negotiate multi-year labor agreements, rather than having to sit at the bargaining table annually. Other proposals would let employees who are suspended for more than 30 days file grievances and access arbitration sessions. Currently, those privileges are given only to employees suspended for less than 30 days.

A fourth question would create a compensation commission to set salaries for elected officials. The commission would ostensibly remove the appearance of City Council members voting themselves a raise. In 1999, council members' annual salaries rose 30 percent, from $37,000 to $48,000. Council members in leadership roles are paid more.

The city questions are separate from the four statewide issues, which will appear first on the ballot. Those proposals would restrict the sale of state-owned lands, allow more court appeals, establish voting precincts on college campuses and would permit civil jury trials only for disputes valued at $10,000 or more.

Most of the city ballot questions focus on borrowing. This year the city wants to borrow $120 million over a two-year period. The money would be used for a wide range of projects, including replacement of roofs and boilers and physical improvements at city schools. $3 million would be spent on the library system and $4 million would go toward purchasing abandoned homes.

If approved, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum would receive $800,000 to help pay for its planned 120,000-square feet expansion, and $500,000 would go toward the design and construction of an education center on Pier 1 of the Inner Harbor.

Projects are selected by the city's Planning Department. The money will ultimately be paid back through city taxes. Otis Rolley III, the city planning director, said Baltimore has taken on debt conservatively and notes that Wall Street's outlook for city bonds has improved in the past year.

"It's kind of like Mom and apple pie, to be honest with you," Rolley said of the projects. "It's good debt. It's investing ... so that you can bring in more assets and resources. It's never a mistake to invest in education."

Ballot questions

Here's a list of the questions on the ballot for city voters tomorrow:

$36 million for school construction and facility improvements

$3 million for the Enoch Pratt Free Library

$32 million for community development projects

$10 million for affordable housing projects

$24.4 million for economic development projects

$9 million for work on city parks

$3.6 million for cultural institutions, such as museums

$2 million to improve city buildings

A charter amendment to create a compensation commission for elected officials

A charter amendment to create a housing trust fund

A charter amendment to allow multi-year bargaining with labor unions

A charter amendment to allow grievance and arbitration procedures for city employees suspended for more than 30 days

[Source: Baltimore City Board of Elections]

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