Deep cut or small slices?

Mayoral candidates differ on property tax reduction as residents say high rate pushes them from Baltimore

July 23, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Penn Wilbert and his wife, Amanda Ferchak, have lived in Southeast Baltimore for six years — riding bikes to the grocery store, playing kickball at Patterson Park and meeting friends for drinks at bars inCanton.

But last month, when the young couple purchased their first home, they chose a house in Anne Arundel County. The reason, according to Wilbert, an information technology specialist, was lower crime, better schools and — most importantly, he said — lower property taxes.

"I'm part of the thirtysomething generation that wanted to live in the city," said Wilbert, 31. "But every single place we looked at that was in our price range, the property taxes were $5,000 to $6,000."

The couple found a spacious home in Arnold with an annual tax bill of $3,200 — as well as a garage, a yard and a good elementary school nearby.

Baltimore's property tax rate — more than twice as high as those in surrounding counties — has emerged as a key issue in the mayoral election.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake rolled out a plan last week that she said would reduce property taxes on owner-occupied homes by 9 percent over nine years.

Her opponents — state Sen. Catherine Pugh, former city planning director Otis Rolley and Realtor Joseph T. "Jody" Landers — have promised for weeks that they would cut the rate by one-third to one-half, which they say would spark growth in the city.

Rawlings-Blake dismisses her opponents' plans as unrealistic. But some economists say that Landers' and Rolley's proposals, modeled after the District of Columbia's property tax program, in which vacant and blighted homes are taxed at a much higher rate, could work if new residents could be persuaded to move to Baltimore.

Economists question whether Rawlings-Blake's proposal, which calls for a change in state law and projects reductions spread over two mayoral terms, would cut property tax bills enough to reverse decades of population decline in the city.

City life has grown more expensive in recent years. Faced with two gaping budget shortfalls in her first 18 months in office, Rawlings-Blake has raised more than 60 taxes and fees — including the income tax, cellphone taxes, parking meter fees, parking fines and environmental control board hearing fees.

Water and sewer rates have risen by 9 percent in each of the past two years, and similar increases are planned over the next three.

Rawlings-Blake increased the city's operating budget by 1 percent this year, to $1.3 billion. City spending has gone up even as the population has declined. Baltimore has lost about half a million residents in the past 50 years; about 30,000 left in the past decade.

Rawlings-Blake's property tax proposal relies heavily on projected revenue from a long-delayed slots casino in Baltimore, money that by law can be used only to reduce property taxes or improve schools.

On the day last week that Rawlings-Blake unveiled her property tax proposal, the state slots commission pushed back by two months the deadline for potential casino operators to bid on the Baltimore slots license.

Rawlings-Blake said she is "confident that the Baltimore slots site will be successful." She described her plan to cut property taxes as "real, achievable and fiscally responsible." She said her plan is "the beginning, not the end" and would pave the way for future growth.

She would cut 20 cents from the city's property tax rate — now $2.268 per $100 of assessed value — by 2020. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would save $40 in 2013 under her plan and $400 in 2020.

"As long as I'm mayor, I'll make sure that this plan is carried forward," Rawlings-Blake said.

In 2005, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley signed a measure that reduced the property tax rate by 2 cents for five years. O'Malley's successor, Sheila Dixon, continued the 2-cent cut in her first year as mayor, but halted it amid the recession.

Economist Anirban Basu said Rawlings-Blake's promised cuts could lure new residents to the city.

"The mayor's approach, though unspectacular, would put the city on the right trajectory and is fiscally responsible," he said. "Nine percent is not enough, but at least the mayor, if she is elected, is moving the needle in the right direction."

Basu, head of the Sage Policy Group, said Baltimore finds itself in a Catch-22.

"What the city needs more than anything else is more taxpayers," he said. "But … more taxpayers won't come unless the tax rate is cut significantly, and the tax rate can't be cut significantly without more taxpayers."

Perhaps no candidate has studied the property tax issue more closely than Landers, who served as vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors until last month and chaired a blue-ribbon commission in 2007 that focused on lowering property taxes.

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