The Lax Taxman

Our View: The News That Baltimore Isn't Sure Whether Commercial Parking Lots Are Paying Their Taxes Suggests The Need For A Comprehensive Look At City Finances

November 18, 2009

It's hard to decide which is worse: the notion that dozens of Baltimore City parking lots might not be paying the taxes they owe, or the fact that the city is so disorganized that it's not sure whether they are.

Sun reporter Julie Scharper reported Tuesday on a preliminary audit of tax records showing that city workers were unable to find records of tax payments in a city database for 52 parking lots that were advertised online or elsewhere or which they found on walking tours of the city. Are they scofflaws and tax cheats? Maybe, maybe not. Auditors say the lots may be paying the taxes and having them credited to different addresses or different accounts. More than 100 other lots that are listed as inactive might be skipping taxes, or they might now be used for other purposes. The city doesn't know, and at a time when government workers are losing their jobs, services are being cut back and municipal offices are being closed for furlough days, that's simply unacceptable.

Commercial parking lots in Baltimore are supposed to register with the city and pay a licensing fee, plus a tax of 16 percent of gross revenue. It has amounted to $16 million to $18 million a year recently and, the city hopes, could total $23 million this year. Auditors aren't sure how much money the city might be losing from unpaid parking taxes, but Councilman Robert W. Curran estimated it could be as much as $1 million a year.

You might imagine a bright side to this revelation, that amid its budget squeeze, the city is tightening its procedures, going over the books and making sure it's getting all the money it deserves before cutting municipal services. You'd be wrong. The potential problem only came to light by blind chance.

Mr. Curran, who represents the Harford Road area in Northeast Baltimore, was getting complaints from constituents that their cars were being towed from a lot too fast, before they could get change for the meter. Mr. Curran checked into matters only to discover the city had no record of the lot's existence. That prompted him to request the audit.

But it isn't necessarily comprehensive, either. Auditors checked out satellite photos of the city to spot likely parking lots, searched the Internet and snooped around on foot. There could be plenty of other lots they're missing still.

It's disappointing, if not surprising, that a decade after former Mayor Martin O'Malley brought CitiStat to municipal governance, this kind of haphazard management could still exist. Sure, the city can track trash trucks on GPS and spot potentially illegal roof decks from aerial photos, but when it comes to something mundane like collecting parking taxes and keeping records of them, Baltimore is apparently at a loss. Baltimore residents can only rue the fact that the state government, not the city, handles their property tax assessments; plenty of people probably wouldn't be so upset if the government lost track of waterfront townhouses the way it does parking lots.

Another $1 million would be enough to stave off a few budget cuts - the entire dispute between the City Council and Mayor Sheila Dixon over the budget this spring centered on about $1.2 million in cuts to community programs - but it's not enough to make a huge difference as the city is forced to cut tens of millions over the coming months as tax receipts lag and state budget cuts worsen. But this revelation raises the question of just how effectively the city is tracking its finances. The case of the missing parking lots may have unraveled by happenstance, but it should serve as an impetus to take a fresh, systematic look at where the city is getting its revenue and where it's going.

Readers respond

Wow. What happened to the money the school system lost under Martin O'Malley's watch? Was that ever resolved?

The city's inability to track money is very troubling, to say the least ... Too bad they can't lose my tax bill!

Jay

If you were to make this stuff up, people wouldn't believe it. Where are the grown-ups?

Mr. Rational

This is just outrageous. Baltimore city is a mess, where the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. Whenever I go there I get gouged for parking, and to think they may be getting away with not paying their taxes makes my blood boil.

Baffled

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