Parking lots may not be paying city taxes

Baltimore could be losing hundreds of thousands, audit suggests

November 17, 2009|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Baltimore could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from commercial parking lots that are not listed in a city database as paying monthly taxes, a preliminary audit of tax records suggests.

Several dozen parking lots advertised as operating in the city - including many hospital parking facilities and lots used during Ravens games - are not listed in a city database as having paid a tax, according to the report. City officials don't know whether the money is missing or has been accounted for in a different way, but the potential loss could be more than $1 million yearly, said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who requested the audit.

"Obviously this revenue would go a long way to plug in some of the holes in budget shortfalls," Curran said. "Rather than go out there and look for new taxes, I believe that it's incumbent on the city government to see if we are receiving the taxes that we should be receiving right now."

Auditors also discovered that at least one monthly report was missing for 60 other parking lots and that six state-licensed facilities could not be found in the city tax database, according to city auditor Robert L. McCarty Jr., who emphasized that the results are preliminary and could change. A final audit is expected to be completed within several weeks.

"As an administration, we always want to make sure that the city is accumulating the proper revenue," said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon. "But in deference to the council and the process, the mayor will wait to take action until we get a full report."

It's possible that some of the unrecorded lots are sending money to the city. The owner of one facility that auditors could not find in city records said that her company has been consistently paying the tax.

"We have a permit and pay our taxes every month," said Amsale Geletu, the owner of PMS parking, the company that manages the lot at the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street. A city employee recently came to the lot to check the tax records, she said.

Several calls to Henry Raymond, the director of the city's collections unit which oversees the parking tax records, were not returned yesterday.

The parking tax has brought the city between $16 million and $18 million in recent years and is projected to reach $23 million for the fiscal year that began in July. Parking facilities are supposed to pay the city 16 percent of their gross revenue; before December 2008, the city taxed monthly and daily spaces at different rates.

The audit comes as Baltimore is struggling with serious budget problems, in part because of declines in projected tax revenues and cuts in state assistance. In an effort to trim $60 million from its current $2.3 billion budget, the city has laid off workers and announced that government offices will close for five mandatory unpaid furlough days.

"We've got firehouse closings and furlough days. We've got to make sure these lots give us what we're due," Curran said.

Curran learned that some parking facilities could not be found in city records after residents complained to him about a lot in the Hamilton area that was towing cars before motorists had time to walk to a store for quarters to put in pay machines. When Curran, a Democrat who represents the Harford Road corridor, checked tax records, he discovered that the lot didn't exist in the city's eyes.

City lots that charge for parking are required to pay an annual licensing fee of $5.10 for every hundred square feet of space, in addition to the monthly tax. Payment information is recorded in the city's Municipal Tax Record System, which also includes data about taxes paid by hotels, telecommunication companies and utilities.

Auditors searched online parking lot listings, scanned aerial photos of the city and noted facilities they encountered in their daily lives, then compared their findings to the lots listed in the database, McCarty said.

They discovered that 16 lots advertised online, 14 lots mentioned on hospitals' Web sites and 15 lots recommended on a Ravens site could not be found in the database.

Of lots that were listed, 28 submitted declining average monthly parking taxes over a three-year period. An additional 144 lots that had previously paid taxes were listed as inactive, according to the report.

McCarty stressed that the audit was far from final and that some of the missing lots could be listed under another address or considered as part of a different facility. The inactive lots could have been replaced with buildings or no longer run as paid lots.

Auditors have met with officials in the city's collection unit and plan to visit the lots that are not listed in the database. They are expected to present their findings at a taxation and finance committee hearing within the next several weeks.

The numbers
$23 million: The amount of taxes the city expects to collect from parking lots this year.

Missing from the database
16 lots advertised online

14 lots recommended on hospitals' Web sites

15 lots used during Ravens games

7 downtown lots auditors found on a walking tour

6 parking facilities licensed through the state

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