Charter amendments represent a bold approach
I am a native Marylander, having grown up in Baltimore County, and spending over a decade as an adult living in Baltimore
City. As the home to world-class educational, medical and financial institutions, an attractive waterfront, well-established park system, and historic neighborhoods and architecture, the city has assets that are a model for other cities. At the same time, the city has been hindered by levels of violent crime, addiction and concentrations of poverty that are disproportionate to the size of its population. As a result, the city has continued to lose residents for over half a century despite its assets.
While the city could not prevent the appetite for suburban living among middle-class households, it has exacerbated the problem by failing to leverage its assets and entice more households to stay or move to the city. This failure, at least in part, is due to the city having neither a competitive tax structure nor modern infrastructure (i.e., a functional public transportation system). These problems are structural: Without incentives to promote a greater degree of wealth among its residents, relative to the suburbs, the city is unwelcoming and poorly integrated within the larger metropolitan region. This posture has rendered its problems more intractable and the city unable to reach its potential.
Across administrations, the city has suffered from weak leadership that has failed to recognize these problems. It is clear that the city will not, on its own, address the root of these problems. Given this inertia, I came to believe that outside pressure on the city in the form of a coalition was needed to force it to address its structural failings. Thus, I was very excited to learn that others had reached a similar conclusion and come together to organize “Renew Baltimore” in order to enact a significant reduction in the city’s property tax rate by proposing amendments to the City Charter. If these amendments are enacted, it will probably constitute the best news for the city that I can remember since I first became vested in the city’s future following my graduation from college in the early 2000s.
I agree with the coalition’s framing of Baltimore’s property tax system as inequitable: it harms low-income homeowners and homeowners on fixed incomes, many of whom are persons of color or elderly or both; discourages investment; encourages suburban flight; inhibits appreciation in property values and diverts a greater share of income to paying property taxes rather than to building equity in that property. By contrast, a significant reduction in property taxes will provide households with reason to invest in Baltimore City and will build more wealth throughout the city. Meanwhile, city government will benefit from a growing or stable population and more balanced approach to generating revenue.
That being said, the one piece missing from this proposal (which requires state authorization) is a way to enable the city to raise revenue from the thousands of individuals who work in and play in, but do not live in, Baltimore City, for example through a local option sales tax. Under the existing framework, residents of Baltimore City shoulder an uneven share of the cost of running city government in relation to the population that benefits from city services. The city should therefore be able to explore alternative sources of revenue that do not burden residents or discourage population growth in order to offset any losses from a significant reduction in property taxes.
Notwithstanding the likely need for some offsets, the charter amendments represent a bold approach to making serious reform to Baltimore City government. I applaud the formation of Renew Baltimore and its goals.