A missed chance on taxes

Our view : Baltimore should make relief for homeowners a priority

June 16, 2008

The City Council is proving itself penny-wise - actually, make that two-penny-wise - and pound-foolish.

By effectively rubber-stamping Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget, the council's budget committee last week failed to honor a pledge that the city would continue to cut property taxes by 2 cents per $100 of assessed value annually for five years. The full council will vote on the budget today.

How much of a bite would a 2-cent property tax cut take out of the budget? Not even 1 percent. In fact, the cost of the cut, estimated by the city at $5.4 million, represents less than one five-hundredth of the city's $2.94 billion budget.

The council can't add to the mayor's budget, but it can make cuts and advocate different priorities. After Ms. Dixon abandoned the tax cut in April - a month after proposing its continuation - some council members spoke of finding creative ways to honor the tax-cut commitment. It could have been done in any number of ways: forgoing cost-of-living raises, further eliminating vacant positions, holding the line on police and fire overtime. But it didn't happen.

City officials lack a sense of urgency when it comes to excessive property taxes, perhaps because the subject is less gripping than the twin plagues of drugs and violence. But Baltimore's tax rate is by far the highest in the state, more than twice Baltimore County's. This is tantamount to hanging out a "Not Welcome" sign, and it is unsustainable for a city that needs to keep and attract blue-collar and middle-class taxpayers.

Some may dismiss a 2-cent tax reduction as largely symbolic, saving just $60 on a $300,000 home. But a little symbolism can go a long way toward convincing people that Baltimore wants them.

No, exorbitant taxation doesn't cause blood in the streets. But as a mayoral task force appointed to study this problem pointed out, it does motivate people to leave the city. Between 2000 and 2005, Baltimore lost more than 4 percent of its taxpayers, according to the task force's report, further increasing the burden on those who remain.

That's a crisis, too - one the city had the wisdom to begin to address three years ago. Let's hope city leaders find the will to do what's right next time.

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