Dixon promises school construction plan

At forum, mayor says she'll offer finance approach often used for big projects

August 15, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Speaking at a candidates forum in Northeast Baltimore yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon said her administration is prepared to unveil a plan that would significantly increase money available for school construction.

Though short on details, Dixon said she will announce next week that the city intends to use tax increment financing -- a process typically reserved for large-scale developments -- to drum up money for school construction and renovation.

"The city is getting ready to step up and not only help with new construction of the schools -- because the state has not picked up their responsibility -- but also in helping with capital improvements on our charter schools," Dixon said at the forum, organized by the HARBEL Community Organization.

In tax increment financing, commonly known as TIF, a city or county borrows money to pay for a construction project and then pays that loan back with the increased value -- the increment -- that the completed project adds to the tax roll. A large hotel built on a formerly vacant lot, for instance, increases that property's value for tax purposes -- bringing more money into government coffers.

The announcement will come weeks before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary election in which eight candidates are vying to be mayor. It also follows several controversies surrounding city school construction, including an article in The Sun that showed how construction projects that had been paid for were not being completed.

Saying late last night that she would have spelled out the plan in greater detail if reporters had not been in the room, Dixon suggested the city could increase the size of the original loan -- which would come in the form of a bond -- on certain projects and use that additional borrowed money for schools. After the forum, Dixon would not answer questions about the plan.

Baltimore is using the tax-increment method to pay for a $15 million loan for expansion of Mondawmin Mall.

School advocates have often criticized tax increment financing in other parts of the country because it redirects revenue that would otherwise be spent on education.

The forum included three other mayoral candidates: City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Del. Jill P. Carter and schools administrator Andrey Bundley. One of Dixon's opponents argued that the idea should have been put in place years ago when the mayor was president of the City Council.

"In 30 years when there's no new school built, clearly there was no political will at City Hall to get that done," Carter said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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