To lower tax rate, Baltimore needs to share its burdens with the counties

December 27, 2010

Kudos for your publication of David Tufaro's commendable piece on the challenges facing Baltimore's city government ("A reform agenda for Baltimore's next mayor," Dec. 27).

However, as in almost all discussions of the city's finances, the list was understandably silent on one basic issue: the futility of trying to significantly reduce the city's real estate taxes without addressing the difference between the tax base in the city and the counties.

The city's real estate taxes are twice as high as the surrounding counties for one simple reason: The last time the city's boundaries were expanded was in 1918, drastically restricting the area that pays city real estate taxes today, and in 1948 the state constitution was amended to prohibit any annexation of additional territory without the consent of the affected residents.

Very simply, this has meant that the value of practically all of the new development that has taken place since World War II has been added to the tax base of the counties, while the city has been left with the cost of maintaining the major institutions and dealing with the social problems that still exist in the center of the metropolitan area.

There are probably a number of reductions that can be made in the city budget, but to ask that the city drastically reduce its real estate tax rate without shortchanging the most needy citizens and/or cutting essential services may be wishful thinking.

Theoretically, there is a solution, called TBS, or tax base sharing with the counties, which more evenly distribute the costs of government to match the distribution of the real estate tax base over the entire metropolitan area. It has been done in some other cities in one form or other.

But in Maryland, that would apparently require action by the General Assembly, and the political odds of doing it through legislative action appear to be from zero to less than nothing.

Still, the mayor who could bring that off in some way could be mayor for life.

Martin L. Millspaugh, Baltimore

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