Little things add up in mayor’s budget

Bed tax, bottle tax and others fill the gap and avoid sacrificing key services

April 15, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Props to the new mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, for her savvy handling of the city's budget mess. The hurricane she predicted in March turned out to be mild rain in April, and all but the 250 employees who lose their jobs should breathe a little easier. The mayor is cutting the size of city government, but not where it really matters — law enforcement, public safety, recreation for kids — and she's filling the gap in revenue in the style of Thenardier.

Monsieur Thenardier, a character from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," sings a show-stopper in the 1985 musical adaptation of the novel. He's Master of the House, a weasely villain who runs an inn in a town outside Paris and charges his guests all kinds of interesting "user fees."

I don't mean to say that Mayor Rawlings-Blake is in any way villainous. But the array of new taxes and fees she's rolled out — a bottle tax here, a bed tax there — brings to mind Thenardier's litany of fees for guests at his inn:

"Charge 'em for the lice, extra for the mice/Two percent for looking in the mirror twice/Here a little slice, there a little cut/Three percent for sleeping with the window shut."

Mayor Rawlings-Blake wants speedy passage of two new taxes that would bring in an estimated $15 million: a $350 annual tax on hospital and university beds and a 4-cent tax on some beverage containers.

The bed tax is a way of getting nonprofit institutions, which are exempt from paying property taxes, to put about $4 million in the municipal till. I'm sure we're going to hear some bellyaching about it, but maybe, in these challenging economic times, those institutions shouldn't complain too much about a charge they'll pass on to users of those beds anyway. (Let's just make sure nonprofit shelters aren't charged for providing beds for the homeless.)

The bed tax might sound like something out of Thenardier's inn, but it seems like a relatively small price for the big universities and hospitals to pay in return for the services they get from the city.

As for the bottle tax, there's already a coalition of restaurants and stores to try and stop it. They say the 4-cent-a-bottle tax is going to "drive their customers out of the city."

But business owners always say that stuff. Somebody's always saying this thing and that thing is going to drive people out of the city — as if they're all going to move to the suburbs because a six-pack of beer will cost 24 cents more than it does now.

I'm trying to imagine a couple of guys from a construction site stopping at a package store on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown for a couple of bottles of a cold beverage, and one says to the other, "Wait a minute, man. Let's drive to the county — four cents a bottle cheaper there."

If the tea party people (about Baltimore, we didn't know you cared! Thanks!) want to protest the bottle tax, let them drink milk and juice. Milk and juice bottles are exempt from the tax.

Just so you don't get the wrong idea: I'm no fan of taxes. Who is?

It's that some complain about them more than others, and the ones who do — and there will be plenty of them around tomorrow, April 15 — seem most often to be those who despise government and who believe they get nothing for their hard-earned money in return. They live in America's 51st state, the state of denial.

The rest of us just live with the reality — stuff costs money. Cops cost money. Clean streets cost money. A swimming pool for city kids costs money. That Mayor Rawlings-Blake has tried to come up with a little here and a little there — in the Thenardier style, only nicer, and for the public good — means the users of Baltimore, not only its heavily taxed residents, are being asked to pay the freight. And that's OK with me.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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