Baltimore lawmakers in Annapolis are endorsing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan to provide a property tax credit for police and firefighters who buy homes in the city, a policy some say would improve first responders' relationship with the community.
The General Assembly is expected to approve the city's request before the session ends in April. The Baltimore House delegation's unanimous approval of Rawlings-Blake's proposal Friday was the first step toward passage.
The bill is one of the mayor's top legislative priorities this year. Proponents hope it will start to reverse a trend of Baltimore police officers and firefighters — including emergency medical services workers — living outside the city.
The credit, which could be used only for owner-occupied homes, would be available to current homeowners as well as officers and firefighters who buy city houses.
Del. Mary Washington, a sponsor of the bill, told colleagues the $2,500-a-year tax credit could be used for housing at any price but is aimed at homes that cost $150,000 to $225,000. She said the credit would reduce the city property tax on a $200,000 house from about $4,500 to $2,000.
"It brings it down to extremely competitive with the surrounding counties," Washington said. Baltimore has the highest property tax rate in Maryland.
A legislative work group found last year that 21 percent of Baltimore police officers were city residents. Sixty-eight percent lived elsewhere in Maryland, while 10 percent lived out of state. The percentage of officers living in the city was down from 2012, when an Abell Foundation report found that 27 percent of police employees were city residents.
"The priority is to stop the rapid decline," Washington said. She added that if the credit increases the number of police officers and firefighters who live in the city to one-third, it would cost the city about $2.8 million a year in tax revenue.
"I believe it's a good investment," Washington said. She said the credit would be available to officers and firefighters of any rank. Washington, like the rest of Baltimore's delegates and senators, is a Democrat.
Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said, "Having more first responders invested in our neighborhoods will produce many benefits as we seek to grow Baltimore."
Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the city House delegation, predicted the bill would "fly through" the legislature. He said the concept has the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.
The bill now goes to the House Ways & Means Committee for hearings and a vote on whether to send it to the floor. If the legislature and Gov. Larry Hogan approve, the City Council would then vote on the tax credit. The Assembly generally defers to the wishes of local delegations on local bills.
Anderson said the question of where officers live frequently comes up at community meetings on such topics as police brutality.
"One of the most common complaints when you go to these forums is the fact the police don't live in the community, and we're hoping to change that," he said.
Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who chairs Baltimore's Senate delegation, said she will introduce the legislation in that chamber. She is also looking into ways to provide incentives for police and firefighters who might prefer to rent homes in the city.
Many people who take those jobs are in their early 20s when they start and might not be ready to buy homes, said Pugh, who also said she's not sure whether rental incentives would be written into the bill.
The Abell Foundation report said residence incentives could be effective, depending on how they are designed. It found that some incentives had little effect, such as the experience in cities including Detroit and Chattanooga, Tenn.. But other programs — in cities including Atlanta and New Haven, Conn. — prompted 6 percent to 8 percent of nonresident police officers to move into the city.
The report found that while such programs have broad public support, there are limits to what they can accomplish. It noted that police officers, in particular, are reluctant to move into high-crime areas where they might have to interact with the people they deal with on the job.
"There is a broad consensus that police officers, in Baltimore and elsewhere, have concerns about living in the communities they serve," the report said. "They prefer to live where they are less likely to have casual, nonprofessional interactions with the people they police."
When faced with questions from residents about why more officers did not live in the city, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts would answer that he wanted to see the number increase. But he also would recount the time when he was an officer in California and he and his pregnant wife bumped into a man he had arrested while at the grocery store.
"A week later, I moved us out of the city," he told the residents. "If I had it my way, I would have every officer living in the city. But I understand both sides of the coin."
Baltimore police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell told New York magazine recently that he moved his family to Delaware years ago after one of his sons was accosted by an officer. "I couldn't protect my six African-American boys in Baltimore," he said, from either violence or the police.
Libit said the city recognizes those challenges.
"It's a part of a solution to improving police-community relations," he said. "It's not the only solution."
Some cities impose residency requirements. This month, a Pennsylvania appellate court this month upheld Pittsburgh officers' challenge to a rule that says they must live in the city. The city sought the ruling after an arbitration panel ruled that officers could live within a 25-mile radius of downtown Pittsburgh. Philadelphia police officers won the right to live outside the city but can't move out of state.
Washington said she considered legislation imposing a residency requirement but concluded that it could make it difficult for the city to recruit officers.
Baltimore County Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Towson Democrat who leads the county's delegation to Annapolis, said he appreciates the motive behind the tax credit. Police officers who live in the area they patrol are more committed to the community, he said.
"I understand the premise. It's a sensible premise," he said.
If the city moves forward with a tax credit for police officers and firefighters, Lafferty said, the county could discuss whether it should offer a similar benefit to its officers. A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said no such policy has been considered.
Baltimore County isn't worried about losing residents who are city officers to Baltimore because the county's housing market is "robust," said Ellen Kobler, the spokeswoman.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.