Baltimore mayor's race: On promises and property taxes

Baltimoreans have some thinking to do before the Sept. 13 primary

July 25, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Last week, when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was a guest on my radio show, at least four listeners asked questions that seemed to suggest they had one foot out of the door already.

"I have lived in the city for nearly 10 years," said an email from a listener named Tom in Station North. "In that time we have had two very big Baltimore boosters as mayor (Martin O'Malley and Sheila Dixon), who generated excitement and investment and made me proud to say I live in Baltimore. Unfortunately, that 'excitement' seems to have ended. ... Events like the Grand Prix seem more of a hassle than a benefit. What would you do during your second term to make me want to stay in Baltimore?"

Notice how Tom didn't mention the usual issues — crime, mediocre schools, trash, property taxes. Apparently, he's looking for a little more "excitement" than IndyCars racing around the Inner Harbor. Perhaps he wants the "excitement" of another mayor on trial (Dixon) or 100,000 arrests a year (O'Malley). As for investment, Tom is correct — there was a lot more of it in the good old days before the worst recession since the Great Depression hit town and stayed.

But back to that what're-you-going-to-do-for-me question. It always suggests an ultimatum: If City Hall doesn't do more to make us happy, we'll flee to the counties. As if life in Baltimore offers nothing but misery. As if greater cultural and social riches await in the suburbs. I think thousands of Baltimoreans grew up in the 'burbs and, accustomed to the relative isolation and orderliness of that life, they expect the same from the more crowded and complex setting of rowhouse neighborhoods.

Of course, Baltimore has been a shrinking city for decades for four historic reasons — the loss of manufacturing jobs, the racial integration of schools, the decline in schools and the rise in violent crime.

Property tax? Not so much a factor. You could always buy a house more cheaply in Baltimore City than in Baltimore County. So, while your city tax bill was much higher, you could at least find a house that was affordable to get started. And that's what happened. People bought houses. Then they had babies. Then they moved to the suburbs — primarily for the schools.

Since the housing bust, there's less of a difference in home prices across the city-county line, which is part of the reason the city's property tax rate has become an issue in the mayoral campaign like never before.

And this is a good thing. For too long, we've accepted that the property tax had to be this way, a fact of life in a big city with a serious crime problem, schools in need of funds and a shrinking tax base.

But it's complicated, and voters need to pay attention to make sure we're not getting schnookered by promise-making politicians.

On one hand, you have the Big Idea. Take a big bite — cut the property rate in half within five years! — and average people (not just developers, who usually get all the tax breaks) will get excited and buy property. The city's population will start to grow again, along with its tax base. People with one foot out the door might stay a little longer to see how things work out.

It sounds appealing, and it's the pitch of Mayor Rawlings-Blake's main opponents — Jody Landers, Otis Rolley and Catherine Pugh. They're proposing ambitious cuts of one-third to one-half over a few years.

The Big Idea sounds bold and audacious, but will it work?

Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the one candidate who's actually had to take on the city's fierce budget problems in the midst of recession, says it's pie-in-the sky stuff. She proposes a prudent nibble as a first step, a 9 percent reduction over nine years.

So, Baltimoreans have some thinking to do. We've never been in this territory before. The Sept. 13 primary will be a referendum on how we feel about the property tax rate — whether a modest and prudent cut is irrelevant or better than nothing, whether the Big Idea is ingenious or flawed, whether lowering the rate will make any difference at all. I wasn't planning on working this hard to pick the next mayor, but now we have to.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM.

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