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baltimoresun.com

Dixon supports slots

Mayor argues measure as path to 'significant' property tax cut

By Annie Linskey

October 11, 2008

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Promising that revenue from slots machines would provide a "significant and permanent reduction" in city property taxes, Mayor Sheila Dixon and other local elected officials yesterday urged city residents to vote for a November ballot measure to expand gambling in the state.

"I made it very clear, so I hope you report it very clear: I'm supporting Question 2 to reduce the property tax," Dixon said at a news conference, referring to the slots referendum on the ballot.

The referendum would authorize 15,000 machines at five slots parlors across the state, including one in Baltimore. The initiative would bring $600 million a year to the state after the facilities are built in several years, with millions more going to the horse industry and local governments.

Dixon could not say by how much the expected revenues would lower city property taxes. "Probably about six months ago it would have been significant," she said. "Today, I can't give you any guarantees on what it will look like."

The mayor was joined yesterday by City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who said that gambling money is already being spent "up and down the East Coast." She asked: "Why not have a piece of that pie?"

But not all city leaders support the measure. Reached by phone yesterday, City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway said introducing slots would be bad for the city, particularly during an economic downturn when residents have less disposable income. "I think we have enough problems," she said.

If the ballot measure passes on Nov. 4, a developer would be chosen to build a slots facility with up to 3,750 video lottery terminals on city-owned property. The gambling arena would have to be within a half-mile of interstates 95 and 295, and could not be built near residential areas.

The city would receive money from the complex as part of a lease, with funds directed toward a combination of property tax reduction and school construction.

First Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said the city expects to take in at least $25 million a year, and possibly much more.

Baltimore's property tax rate is $2.268 per $100 of assessed value, making it the highest in the state and more than twice that of Baltimore County's rate. It costs the city $2.6 million in revenue to reduce the rate by one cent.

In January, a group that includes 26 business and civic leaders estimated that a full-scale casino could knock 17 cents off the property tax rate, in part because of an expectation that the casino would draw more visitors to the city. But the current economic slump has altered that prediction, Dixon said. A slots-only venue, as currently anticipated, would generate less money.

Opponents of the measure, led by Comptroller Peter Franchot, call slot machine gambling corrosive to the state's economy and a government-backed scheme that would defraud citizens of disposable income.