Towson goes to town

June 01, 2007

Baltimore County has long demonstrated an aversion to municipal government. There isn't a single incorporated town or city in all of its 598 square miles, from Carroll Point to Liberty Reservoir. That's a challenge for an urbanized community such as Towson, where the central business district has city-like needs but not the local government to advocate or pay for them.

But now Towson business leaders are taking a look at what might be the next best thing - a commercial tax district. It would involve creating a special taxing zone - most likely around the heart of downtown Towson - where property owners would finance extra services such as street cleaning or landscape maintenance that aren't ordinarily provided by Baltimore County government.

That's a familiar formula to city business owners.

Baltimore has three such tax districts - in downtown, Charles Village and midtown - and is about to launch a fourth next month, along the waterfront from Federal Hill to Fells Point. The Downtown Partnership's roving ambassadors, the polo-shirt-wearing men and women who not only advise tourists but also keep a watchful eye for crime, have been a particularly noteworthy addition to the city.

Exactly what services would be provided in Towson, how much business owners might have to pay, and even the parameters of the district would have to be determined. The County Council would also have to approve any proposal, as would two-thirds of those who would be taxed.

Still, the interest expressed by the Greater Towson Committee and others in setting up such a district couldn't come at a better time. Towson's renewal and redevelopment efforts have picked up steam over the past year or two. Major construction projects are under way, and more are on the drawing board.

The effort is likely to require some investment by county government - new parking garages are among the tax-subsidized initiatives being discussed. This would give the business community an opportunity to step up to the plate as well.

After all, just because there's no mayor of Towson doesn't mean its downtown shouldn't have clean streets, green spaces and safe sidewalks. A commercial tax district gives business owners the most bang and least bureaucracy for their bucks. Even in government-wary Baltimore County, that should prove an appealing concept.

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