City's spending priorities are skewed

Developers get millions in tax breaks while schools, services are left wanting

May 09, 2012|By Chris Jack Hill

Let's be honest and place Baltimore City's budgeting and spending problems into proper context. The lavish spending of public funds to fix up the offices of Jerome Oberlton, chief information officer for Baltimore City schools, is really nothing new. Neither is the recently announced closing of four Baltimore recreation centers. Frankly, the underprivileged children and families of Baltimore City are only too used to such things.

Schools CEO Andrés Alonso called the spending by Mr. Oberlton a "bad judgment call," but the fact is, we have a governmental culture in this city that has a recurring history of similarly bad calls.

Consider the facts: We now have a popular harbor, two taxpayer-financed stadiums, a convention center with additions planned, multiple downtown hotels — and still no real transparency when it comes to government spending that clearly articulates the cost of each subsidy awarded by major city agencies. We also have a pattern of economic development efforts that have brought low-wage jobs and minimal benefits for residents, and have failed to steer taxpayer dollars toward Baltimore's working families and children.

We have lots of part-time, minimum wage jobs. We are spending $100 million on a new juvenile detention center, which will cost $8 million a year on average to operate. And we have a bunch of outdated school facilities that are in need of almost $3 billion worth of repairs, according to an ACLU study.

Good Jobs First reports that most of the city money invested in development over the last 30 years has been to build the tax base by upgrading upper-middle and upper-class neighborhoods, catering to the tourist industry and through "development efforts that are increasingly reliant on local tax expenditures."

The report also reveals that the state legislature has passed legislation allowing the city to use both property tax abatements (also referred to as payments in lieu of taxes or PILOTs) and tax increment financing (TIF, a diversion of property taxes) for development projects. The city's first PILOT was awarded to the Waterfront Marriott hotel in 1999, causing the city to waive $2.3 million in property taxes in 2002 and approximately $30 million over the next 25 years.

Despite the high cost of these tax breaks, theBaltimore Development Corp.that grants them operates in almost total secrecy. And most of the jobs created by these projects are minimum wage jobs that often require the use of high rates of part-time labor, according to reports.

The question must be asked: How are spending priorities set in Baltimore? And, is the city living up to its responsibility to provide an adequate education to its children and proper living conditions for its working families? The history of frequent miscalculations or "bad judgment calls" makes it difficult for the public to trust city government.

There is nothing wrong with having places in the city for entertainment and tourism. There is nothing wrong with having a balanced budget. But when large sums are spent, we must have an understanding of who benefits and why. It is critical that when tax breaks are given to developers, these expenditures are linked to the need for school construction, living-wage jobs and other priorities, in a context of governmental transparency, that meets the needs of the underserved in Baltimore City.

Chris Jack Hill, a youth advocate and Baltimore resident, is director of Upper School Diversity at Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County. His email is

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