Landers, Pugh and Rolley all were critical of the tax incentives that the city provides to big development projects.

The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. recently issued a report showing that the city provided incentives totaling $14.5 million to 13 development projects. The city has issued $332 million in bonds for tax-increment financing deals to seven projects, which provide developers with capital to make infrastructure improvements. Property tax payments from these projects are used to pay back the bonds.

"Every single new development that comes into the city holds out for a tax abatement," which indicates that the tax system is fundamentally flawed, Landers said.

Pugh said she wants to provide more incentives to residents and small businesses, and fewer to big developers.

Steven J.K. Walters, a Loyola University economist, said that doling out tax breaks for big development projects cements politicians' power.

"If you're wealthy, if you're politically connected, these are the people they're giving tax breaks to," he said. "They're just not willing to give out those tax breaks to everyone. John and Mary Q. Public looking to renovate a townhouse, they just don't have a seat at the table."

Rawlings-Blake noted that her vacant properties program includes many homebuyer incentives, including a new $5,000 forgivable loan for city employees.

Walters, a visiting fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, co-wrote a report urging city leaders to sharply reduce property taxes to increase the city's population. He believes that cutting the tax rate would quickly cause property values to increase. He says the city should cut its budget aggressively to compensate for the lost property tax revenue — and that it eventually would see tax revenues soar as new residents arrive.

Walters described Rawlings-Blake's planned cuts as "trivially small" and a "vague promise" that would do little to draw new residents. He also criticized Landers' and Rolley's plans for taxing vacant properties at a higher rate.

"They're vacant because they're worthless, not because someone is waiting on them like a pot of gold," Walters said. Ultimately, he said, the city would wind up owning many of the vacants — which it is ill-equipped to sell.

Brunori noted that most cities have substantially higher property tax rates than their suburbs because city residents usually are willing to pay more for easy access to urban amenities.

"Taxes matter, but you can't look at taxes in a vacuum," Brunori said. "What would bring people into Baltimore is lower crime, better schools, better roads and better services in general."

Disappointment with the city's services played a large part in the decision by Wilbert and his wife to move to Arnold, in Anne Arundel County. During their years in Canton and Fells Point, they witnessed a shootout in front of their home, their cars were broken into several times, and they stopped leaving the neighborhood in the evening because it took an hour to find a parking spot at night.

"When cars would get broken into, the residents had to clean up the glass in the street because the city would leave it there for weeks," he said. "It really makes you wonder where the money for city services is going."

Matthew Hackner, a 36-year-old defense contractor, agrees. After four years of city living, Hackner and his wife are selling their home in Canton and buying one just over the county line inMount Washington.

The couple will pay about $7,400 in annual property taxes on their new home. Similar houses a few blocks away in the city have tax bills in excess of $12,000, he said.

"It becomes a matter of simple economics," Hackner said. "I like cities. I like being able to walk around, the vibrancy, the entertainment. But the services the county is providing are better and more affordable."

Hackner said the birth of his daughter two and a half years ago made him realize he needed to move his family out of the city.

"If I have the means to escape, I'm going to do it because I have a responsibility to my family," he said. "But the sad thing is, a lot of people don't have that luxury."