Bal­ti­more can’t af­ford to leave any more money on the ta­ble

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD -

In 2017, Bal­ti­more City failed to col­lect a quar­ter mil­lion dol­lars in park­ing fines be­cause it didn’t up­date its ci­ta­tions to re­flect a higher fee.

In 2018, a state au­dit re­vealed that Bal­ti­more City Cir­cuit Court (for the fourth time in 10 years) didn’t col­lect over­due fines and fees that by then to­taled $11 mil­lion.

In 2019, we learned that Bal­ti­more City ne­glected to en­force $2.3 mil­lion in wa­ter bills from the owner of the Ritz Carl­ton Res­i­dences con­do­mini­ums.

And on Wed­nes­day, we found out city of­fi­cials had not col­lected $2.1 mil­lion in taxes on Uber or Lyft rides.

And those are just the re­cent ex­am­ples. The Sun archives are filled with many more, go­ing back more than a decade.

Se­ri­ously, Bal­ti­more?

You clearly can’t af­ford to leave any money on the ta­ble.

Faced with a po­ten­tial $60 mil­lion schools bud­get gap and the prospect of hav­ing to dou­ble its spend­ing on public ed­u­ca­tion over the next 10 years, of­fi­cials should be go­ing through the couch cush­ions at City Hall look­ing for loose change. Or maybe con­tem­plat­ing their own squeegee routes.

How can lead­ers cred­i­bly ap­pear hat in hand ask­ing the state for more funds if they’re not even col­lect­ing the cash they have com­ing? Imag­ine a business fail­ing to col­lect its due; that’s a business that’s not long for this world.

Bal­ti­more has shut­tered li­braries through the years. The city has closed re­cre­ation cen­ters. It’s al­lowed chil­dren to at­tend schools with­out ad­e­quate heat. How dare we leave even a dol­lar be­hind?

City agen­cies have re­peat­edly failed to ac­count for how they’re spend­ing mil­lions in grant money, putting it in jeop­ardy. Of­fi­cials even once un­der­taxed Peter G. An­ge­los, one of the rich­est peo­ple in Bal­ti­more.

They’ve made cal­cu­la­tion er­rors on tax breaks that cost the city mil­lions.

And with each rev­e­la­tion, some leader calls for new au­dits or maybe the hir­ing of a pri­vate firm to man­age mu­nic­i­pal tax bills or in­creased vig­i­lance. And yet, the head­lines keep com­ing. Do agency heads need a fi­nance course?

Wed­nes­day’s story, by Sun re­porter Colin Camp­bell, lays out a dis­turb­ing lack of ur­gency on the part of of­fi­cials.

In 2015, the state passed a law al­low­ing ride-shar­ing com­pa­nies to op­er­ate in Mary­land un­der a reg­u­la­tory struc­ture that was less bur­den­some than the one taxis face. It also al­lowed lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions to levy fees on ride shar­ing trips.

Yet Bal­ti­more didn’t in­tro­duce a bill to be­gin such tax­a­tion un­til Jan­uary 2019. The leg­is­la­tion spent the past year be­ing largely ig­nored in the Tax­a­tion, Fi­nance and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment com­mit­tee, a vic­tim of the shakeup in city lead­er­ship fol­low­ing Mayor Cather­ine Pugh’s scan­dalous res­ig­na­tion.

And why do we know about this?

Be­cause Uber started giv­ing customers a credit.

“You were charged a city-spe­cific fee for a trip or trips you took in Bal­ti­more, MD be­tween Oc­to­ber 2018 and Au­gust 2019,” the com­pany said in emails to rid­ers. “Be­cause these fees ul­ti­mately were not col­lected by the city, we’ve cred­ited you the amount charged … in Uber Cash to use on fu­ture rides or Uber Eats.”

And there’s the rub: Uber ac­tu­ally col­lected the fee in an­tic­i­pa­tion of ow­ing it to the city.

And still, Bal­ti­more didn’t fol­low through.

In­stead, the city is left scram­bling to see if it can claw back the fee Uber is re­turn­ing to customers. A hear­ing was fi­nally held on the tax bill and ap­proved by the City Coun­cil com­mit­tee Thurs­day. An easy call, since it ob­vi­ously didn’t bother Uber rid­ers.

Now the full coun­cil must pass it Mon­day, and Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials in all agen­cies must do some se­ri­ous ac­count­ing — of their fi­nances and their ac­tions, or lack thereof.

There’s no one to blame here but your­selves.

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