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Some at City Hall have fee fever and need to be stopped

Baltimore taxpayers have officially had it with new taxes and fees

Dan Rodricks

6:16 PM EDT, June 12, 2013

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This time, I'm with Santoni. That is to say, I agree with Bob Santoni, the outspoken owner of the Baltimore supermarket that bears his family's name, that some members of the brain trust running our fair city have stepped through the looking glass.

"They live in a fantasy world down at City Hall," Santoni said when asked about the latest scheme to nickel and dime people who live and work in Baltimore — a proposal by a young city councilman to impose a 10-cent fee for every plastic bag provided in a retail establishment. This would include the shopping bags from Santoni's.

I agree with Santoni because this idea comes at one of the worst possible times. It's as if Councilman Brandon Scott, who proposed the fee, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said she's now "open to this legislation," are oblivious to the 10-car pileup of taxes and fees on average Baltimoreans.

Santoni was one of the big bellyachers about the bottle tax the mayor pushed a couple of years ago. I thought he protested too much. It was a modest tax (2 cents on certain bottles) to help the city get through a budget mess during the recession. But the fee wasn't temporary. In fact, it is due to rise to 5 cents a bottle July 1.

That doesn't sound like much — it never does — but it adds up, especially if you're a person of modest means, and certainly when you consider the other new charges due to take effect July 1.

City homeowners, business owners and the owners of commercial properties will get hit with a new stormwater fee. The city isn't alone in this; nine of the state's largest counties are also under a mandate to impose the fee to pay for efforts to arrest polluting stormwater that runs into the ditches and creeks and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. (Apparently, the General Assembly exempted all the other Maryland counties because their stormwater don't stink.)

Baltimore will have by far the highest fees. City homeowners, already with the highest property tax rates in Maryland, will pay a stormwater fee of anywhere from $40 to $144 a year under proposals being debated now. But that's nothing compared to the hit on businesses and other commercial property owners. They'll pay thousands of dollars. Consider that math for a moment and you have to wonder what they're thinking at City Hall.

And did I mention water bills?

In case you missed that bit of news: Customers of Baltimore's excellent water system could see their bills go up by some 15 percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1. And that's on top of the increases already imposed in recent years, bringing annual bills to nearly $800. Ten years ago, the typical customer in the city paid about $500.

Don't worry. I haven't gone tea party.

The reality is that a bill has come due.

Baltimore's water system serves the metropolitan area. It is old, leaky and always undergoing much-needed repairs. Same is true (even more so) of the city's sewage system, which for years has routinely fouled local waters with raw human waste whenever it rains. It's getting hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs, partly the result of a consent decree between the city and the federal government to reduce pollution of the harbor and bay.

That consent decree is at least a decade old now. Since then, we've had a financial meltdown and recession. The housing bubble burst; tax revenues fell. Baltimore's mayor has been dealing with budget shortfalls and big bills. She's managed to cobble budgets together while building a long-term plan for property tax relief.

OK, fine. That's all understood by those of us who live in the real world and know that city services cost money and that the tax base still isn't broad enough, so everything costs more here. We might even understand why the mayor supports $107 million in infrastructure financing to help the wealthy developer of the proposed Harbor Point, already the beneficiary of big city tax breaks. The project near Harbor East could bring jobs, new residents, new revenues for the city.

We get that, up to a point.

And this is the point: When June becomes July, it will bring too many new fees and higher taxes (including the one on gasoline sales across the state).

So, the last thing Baltimoreans want to hear is the word "fee."

We've officially had it with taxes and fees.

And, no, I don't care that it's only 10 cents this time. I don't care that it's for the worthy, Earth-loving purpose of getting people to stop using plastic shopping bags, which will reduce the number of plastic bags in our trees, our streets and our streams.

Any other time, I'd favor it. I'd even support a higher fee because 10 cents a bag strikes me as too low to change anyone's behavior.

But we're fee'd out. So stop!

drodricks@baltsun.com