Give mayor's tax plan a chance to work

Shifting expenses offers chance to lower property tax rate

  • Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as Mayor of Baltimore as she is sworn in by Frank Conaway Sr.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as Mayor of Baltimore as she is sworn… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
February 20, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Excuse me, but what are my fellow Baltimoreans complaining about? The mayor has proposed doing something to avoid an all-out collapse of the city's finances, and some citizens of Paradise-on-the-Patapsco are annoyed, confused or just so cranky and fed up with February they need a good cheesesteak sub from Captain Harvey's.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to lower the city's highest-in-the-state property tax rate to a level that makes the rate more competitive with those in surrounding counties, and — what? — we don't like that?

We should be sending her chocolates.

Part of the mayor's plan involves pulling the costs of trash pick-up and recycling out of the city's operating budget (about $58 million a year) and charging each taxpaying entity a fee for the service. It's one piece of Rawlings-Blake's plan to lower the tax rate.

Lowering the rate lowers the bills.

Lower bills could mean that maybe one day in the next decade we start to see something that hasn't happened in at least six decades — more people moving into Baltimore than moving out.

Of course, the city needs to lower significant costs over the next 10 years to make all this happen. The city has huge expenses up ahead — pensions and healthcare for city employees, roads and bridges, a wicked-bad pothole on Charles Street — and a declining tax base. A consultant hired by the Rawlings-Blake administration says that, unless something is done, Baltimore could have a $750 million structural deficit over the next 10 years.

That's deep red.

Meanwhile, property taxes in the city remain a huge problem. Yes, crime and public education are factors in the city's loss of population. But money drives decisions, and the annual property tax bills go into every family's calculation, especially families considering the purchase of a house for the first time.

I reported a couple of years ago that the housing bust and the recession made significantly more homes in the surrounding counties affordable to first-time homebuyers, which constituted a significant hit to the city's long-standing advantage in affordability.

Jody Landers, the executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors at the time and a first-rate numbers cruncher, reached that conclusion. A former city councilman, Landers ran against Rawlings-Blake for mayor in 2011 with that message: Do something to reduce the city's twice-as-high-as-Baltimore-County property tax rate or lose even more potential first-time buyers to the city's biggest neighbor.

The property tax rate became a central issue in the mayoral campaign.

Still, Rawlings-Blake won the election without offering much on property taxes, making a characteristically conservative pledge to use revenue from the planned casino on Russell Street to eventually cut the rate by 9 percent over nine years.

Nine percent over nine years — not exactly what you'd call a stimulus package. Most Baltimoreans I know shrugged at that promise; the rest yawned.

We've grown used to the property tax rate being high — and to mayors being unwilling or unable to do much about it.

But "Change to Grow," Rawlings-Blake's 10-year strategy for stabilizing the city's finances and significantly lowering the property tax rate is a much more serious effort. I suggest we hold off on the grousing and give it a read and a chance.

Sorry, but you don't get to complain that she doesn't do enough, then complain when she tries to do more.

End of the mill

Received this reverie by email last week from reader Jerry McCann:

"I went to check on my boat, stored for the winter in Edgemere, on Jones Creek. I've kept the boat there so many years I've become accustomed to the noises coming from the Sparrows Point steel mill on the opposite side of the creek.

"This time, I noticed the sound was different. Instead of the hum and roar of a steel plant operating, I heard the clatter of metal parts crashing together and the roar of trucks. I realized that I was hearing the sound of the mill being dismantled by the companies that have purchased all the components after the last and final bankruptcy.

"As I left, a grey fog bank rolled in off the Patapsco River as if to shield a once monumental thing from the degradation of people being able to see its bones being picked clean."

Lenny Moore statue

Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes says he'll introduce a resolution early next month in support for a statue honoring Baltimore Colts great Lenny Moore. I raised this subject two years ago and again after the Ravens' victory in the Super Bowl, when team owner Steve Bisciotti said that a statue of Ray Lewis was under consideration.

But, first things first: If you're interested in supporting the Lenny statue — and from my mail it appears that many of you are — get in touch with Marvin "Doc" Cheatham. He's steering the steering committee. Find him at lennymoorestatue@gmail.com 

drodricks@baltsun.com

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