City Council committee nixes tax breaks for urban farmers

A City Council committee on Tuesday killed a bill to grant tax breaks to urban farmers after the mayor's office said it would set a bad precedent.

The opposition by the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake outraged Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a sponsor of the measure.

"I know we give tax breaks to well-to-do developers," Clarke said, her voice rising, after learning that the city's finance department had urged her colleagues to vote against the bill. Urban farmers, she said, "aren't wealthy. They're not well-heeled. They don't hang out and sit with their suits at tables and talk about how they'll help the city. They just do it."

At issue was a bill before the council's Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, sponsored by Clarke and Councilman Warren Branch, to give a 100 percent property tax credit for "land banks" deemed to be encouraging preservation. To qualify for the credit, applicants would have needed to demonstrate that their land promoted agriculture, helped preservation, increased environmental education or provided a sanctuary for wildlife. The applications would also have needed to be certified by the Maryland Environmental Trust as being in "good standing."

Clarke said volunteers selflessly form land banks to adopt vacant properties in their neighborhoods and beautify them by planting vegetables and farming the land. Credits would provide them with minimal savings in comparison to the tax breaks designed for large development firms, she said, though she did not provide figures.

When a member of the city's finance team told Clarke she would need to meet with the mayor about her opposition to her bill, Clarke sounded incredulous. "I've got to bother the mayor about three tomato patches?" she asked. "If a developer came to you, you'd give out the tax breaks."

William Voorhees, the city's director of revenue and tax analysis, emailed council members before Tuesday's vote counseling them to vote against the bill, saying he was worried about the precedent and feared a loss to city funds down the road.

Councilman Edward Reisinger said he took the message to heart and couldn't approve the tax credits at time when City Hall is cutting other areas of the budget. "We're looking at rec centers," he said. "We're looking at school buildings."

The bill found support from Councilwoman Belinda Conaway and Councilman Bill Henry, but was opposed by Reisinger and chairman Carl Stokes. The committee's other member, Councilman William Cole IV, was not present. The tie vote meant the measure failed to pass.

City Hall has previously endorsed the idea of supporting urban farmers. Earlier this year, Baltimore's food czar, the health department and the Office of Sustainability announced they were seeking urban farmers to help turn 10 acres of city-owned vacant lots into farmland.

The debate comes at a time when tax breaks for developers are coming under increased scrutiny. In his position as finance committee chairman, Stokes has threatened to impose a moratorium on tax breaks for developers until City Hall implements the recommendations of a task force to limit them.

The task force called on the city and its quasi-public development arm, the Baltimore Development Corp., to require a "greater and consistent return" on the tax breaks; to increase efforts for community revitalization and "common good" projects, such as public parks; to seek more profit-sharing agreements with developers; and to communicate better with citizens affected by the projects.

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