What's causing Baltimore's population loss? It's no mystery

With the U.S. Census Bureau reporting yet another year of population loss for the city, it doesn’t take an investigator to determine the causes.

The city’s scary record of 343 homicides in 2017 affirms the city’s well-known reputation as a dangerous place to live. Even if 2018 has fewer homicides, it doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that this year’s homicide rate will be high. Until the city substantially reduces its homicide and other crimes rates, people will continue to view the city as dangerous and be reluctant to stay or move here.

The city’s outrageous property tax of $2.248 per $100 of a property’s assessed value is more than double of its surrounding jurisdictions: Baltimore County, $1.10, and Anne Arundel 90.7 cents. The city’s burdensome property tax on homeowners explains why the city has more renters than homeowners. The city’s high income tax is 3.2 percent, the maximum allowed by law. Baltimore County’s is 2.83 and Anna Arundel’s is 2.56. The city’s tax message is clear: Move here and pay higher taxes. People have figured out how to avoid the city’s taxes and still enjoy the city. They live in surrounding counties and take reasonably priced ridesharing services into the city.

The city’s public school system is a disaster. Last year, some of the schools had zero students who were proficient in math. A couple of months ago, a few city public schools had to temporarily close because of heating problems. If anyone thinks a family would move to the city or stay in the city because of its public school system, then they have another thing coming. The city’s public school enrollment is on the decline. Families are moving to the surrounding counties so they can send their children to decent schools.

The city’s aged infrastructure is terrible. The city’s random water main breaks, spontaneous sinkholes and desperately needed road work means the cash-strapped city faces many repairs. With costs lurking to fix its dilapidated infrastructure, the money to fund these repairs will either be taken from other services or city residents will have to pay higher taxes.

The mayor and the large part-time City Council are fiscally irresponsible. They accepted a raise in December, even though the city faces major financial troubles. The mayor gets paid around $180,000, the city council president $119,000, the City Council vice president $77,000, and the 13 others each $69,000 — plus all have benefits and all have paid support staff. In 2007, the City Council passed a law that entitles elected officials to receive an automatic 2.5 percent raise if the city budget provides money for union employee raises. The elected officials’ automatic raises and the city’s declining population mean the cost of government increases on those taxpayers who remain in the city. The City Council should repeal the 2007 law and reduce its size because it cannot be immune to population decline.

Baltimore’s elections do not change the direction of the city. In the 2016 city general election, the mayor and the council members all promised change, yet the city is in the same or worse shape since the election. Because city government is controlled by one political party and elected officials have no term limits, voters have little options other than to vote with their feet. The City Council should enact term limits and hold nonpartisan elections.

The city needs bold ideas, so I offer mine. The city should work with the Maryland legislature to turn City Hall and the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse into state museums by using both private and public funding. Both buildings have historic feels that are perfect for museums. This would inject more tourism into downtown and bring more people to the area. The city could relocate City Hall and the courthouse to already existing buildings in areas that need development. The city should strongly advocate for a university to locate on Howard Street and run it along the light rail tracks. Students could take advantage of the light rail system. The city should create retirement community zones around hospitals for the elderly. The city could look to Sun City, Ariz., as a model.

As more people move to the surrounding counties, the Maryland Legislature should re-evaluate the city’s borders. It floated an idea two decades ago about merging Baltimore County and city. This would work if the county had control. The county would provide better leadership and management. The Maryland legislature could also revoke the annexation of 1918 and return parts of the city to the better managed Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. This would offer those areas more resources and better leadership.

If the city doesn’t fix its crime, tax, public school and leadership problems, next year’s census report will be the same.

David Placher is a writer for Baltimore Outloud. His email is david.placher@gmail.com.

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