In Baltimore, some business owners say they're constantly nagged by city fees for making improvements to their stores.
Add a bike rack outside? There's a fee for that. Put up a security camera? Another fee. Add more lighting? There's a fee for that, too.
That's why some are expressing disappointment that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake used her first veto since taking office in 2010 to strike down a bill aimed at reducing or eliminating many of the so-called "minor privilege" fees the city charges. In all, the annual fees generate $2.7 million a year.
"I don't think there was any justification for the mayor vetoing the bill," said City Councilman James Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore. "Things that we're encouraging people to do — to better the neighborhood, to improve quality of life — we say, 'We're going to charge you for it.' There's even a fee for putting a flower pot in front of your house."
For her part, Rawlings-Blake believed the legislation was flawed and redundant because she is already planning a reform of the fees, said her spokesman, Kevin Harris. A charter amendment, the bill called for voters to decide on whether the City Council would make decisions about the fees instead of the mayor. The city charges the fees on items that protrude from a building or are placed on a sidewalk.
Harris said the city's Department of General Services is reviewing the fees and plans to eliminate those charged for security cameras, lighting, bicycle racks and handicap ramps in the next two months.
"She thought it was a bad precedent and bad policy," Harris said. "It could create the potential of a lot of council members carving out little niche policies for their districts. There is a pretty robust review taking place. We share the same goal that some of these fees should be eliminated."
City business owners have long complained about the fees, which are charged for items the city considers in the public right-of-way. The issue made news in 2009 when city inspectors attempted to charge Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting $800 for the large pink flamingo that hangs from the fire escape of her Hampden restaurant. The city also famously cited an Elvis statute in front of Nacho Mama's in Canton, and numerous outdoor awnings and tables. The fees can cost area business thousands a year.
The minimum charge for an awning, banner, bike rack or Christmas tree is $70 a year, while the minimum charge for a balcony is $140 per year. Displaying fresh fruit or produce outside costs $337, while a fire escape is billed $141. A bay window gets charged a $1,400 fee.
Sonny Morstein, the owner of Morstein's Jewelers in Federal Hill, said he pays more than $200 annually in minor privilege fees, mainly due to an awning at his store.
"It discourages business from making improvements to their stores," Morstein said. "If you put a beautiful awning out, it's an annual fee. We hear all the time about how small businesses are important. These fees don't encourage small businesses to promote themselves."
Morstein said he was disappointed that Rawlings-Blake vetoed the bill, but was encouraged to hear she planned to eliminate the fees.
"The city is doing everything for the big businesses with all these PILOTs and TIFs," he said, referring to city subsidies. "Cutting these fees would be a nice thing to do for the small-business community."
Harris said Rawlings-Blake has a "long and consistent history of responsibly addressing this problem." He said the mayor worked against fee increases while on the City Council, and noted that fees have not been raised since 2005.
"This legislation is not necessary. It would create more problems than it solves," Harris said. "We're not going to allow an irresponsible and unworkable piece of legislation to become law."
Steve Sharkey, the city's director of general services, wrote in a letter to the City Council in June that his agency is reviewing all such fees to determine if they conflict with "other community improvement efforts."
"For example, encouraging community business districts to participate in facade improvements may be hampered by the annual minor privilege fees for awnings, signs and street furniture," he wrote. "Likewise, the perception of a welcoming community space may be discouraged because of the fees for exterior lighting or fixtures in public spaces."
But Kraft said he has been pestering the city about the fees for years without seeing any action.
"Very frankly, they haven't been very eager to make any changes to the fee structure," he said. "They only really started addressing it when I put in a bill. It's absolutely ridiculous that a business should be required to put in a [handicap] ramp and then we send them a bill for it. It is absurd."
Kraft noted that Rawlings-Blake has allowed other bills to become law, even though she disagreed with them. For instance, Rawlings-Blake declined to either sign or veto Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's local hiring ordinance, after her law department called the bill "unconstitutional."
"It's the only thing she's ever vetoed," Kraft said. "All we said was, 'Let the voters decide.' She didn't want to give folks the opportunity. This is all about who has the power in the city. We have a strong mayor form of government. This is about not taking any chances on any of that power being diminished in any way, shape or form."
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the council president was "not surprised" the mayor vetoed the bill, which Young supported. Her staffers had argued against the measure at council hearings and lunches.
Davis said Young and Rawlings-Blake had a "productive conversation" about her veto and he is "looking forward" to resolving the matter.
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