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