City must hold homeowners harmless [Editorial]

Our view: If Baltimore is to attract new residents, it must treat existing ones better

November 21, 2013

If Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is serious about attracting 10,000 families to Baltimore in the next decade, she needs to find a way to hold those who have already made the decision to buy homes here harmless for the property tax credit errors made by city or state bureaucrats, or a combination of the two. The question of who is to blame is irrelevant. The issue is not even so much the money — though in the cases of some of the homeowners who made a decision to buy based on assurances from government officials, the money is significant. The important thing is whether the city is sending a message that it is open and welcoming. And that's crucial because the suburbs aren't taking the competition for residents lying down.

The latest iteration of faulty Baltimore tax bills, as reported by The Sun's Scott Calvert, involves three dozen condo owners whose historic tax credits were removed this summer with little if any warning. That's in addition to a previously reported group of 315 owners whose bills had also been changed because of the incorrect application of historic tax credits. This fall, the city sent new bills to a majority of those property owners, many of whom saw the credits at least temporarily restored, though city officials didn't provide any details of what they were doing, why or how long it would last.

The mayor needs to do that and better for this latest group. She needs to explain clearly, publicly and unequivocally that Baltimore will not hold its residents responsible for the mistaken assurances of government officials, whether they work for the city or the state. And she needs to drop her objection to an independent audit of the city's finance department. When she says she wants to hold off until reforms the department is making have taken effect, it sounds to residents like she's stalling for time to protect an incompetent bureaucracy.

And the reputation — whether deserved or not — that the city can't get its act together to perform the basic functions of local government is just one of the reasons families choose to live elsewhere. Crime, high property taxes and under-performing schools — recent improvements on at least two of those fronts notwithstanding — remain as major barriers to those who might choose to live and invest in Baltimore.

What the city has been able to offer, though, is the unique character of urban living in contrast to what is typically perceived as the sterile, cookie-cutter existence of the suburbs. Increasingly, young families, empty nesters and all those in between are coming to appreciate that. And the suburbs have taken notice.

In an interview with The Sun's editorial board this week, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz talked at length about his vision for transforming Towson into the next Bethesda — a major employment, entertainment and residential center with an urban feel. He said he wants to make Towson an attractive alternative to empty-nesters who might otherwise move into apartments downtown. He highlighted the development of the Owings Mills Metro Centre project as a unique development that combines subway access to downtown with apartments, shops, restaurants and the county's biggest (and newest) library. And he said that when he pushed for the development of a neo-traditional community on under-utilized land along Route 43 near the Middle River MARC station, he had in mind the idea of attracting young couples who live in Canton or Federal Hill and who have just had kids and are trying to decide where to live for the next phase in their lives.

And by the way, he happened to mention, the county's property tax rate hasn't gone up in a quarter century.

Mr. Kamenetz wasn't declaring an open competition with the city to attract residents, but he doesn't have to. That's been going on for better than 50 years, and it's brought to the surface every time a city resident starts to wonder what kind of service he or she is getting for the privilege of paying the highest taxes in the state. Fixing a problem like these unexpected property tax bills transparently and openly and doing whatever it takes to convince the public that it won't happen again is a lot less costly than the alternative.

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