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Downtown special area bill advances D'Adamo says cost means burden for small merchants


The City Council gave preliminary approval yesterday to establishment of a special benefits district in downtown Baltimore, where commercial property owners would pay a surtax for cleaner streets and more security.

The measure, expected to win final approval Monday, was passed after council members turned aside several attempts to tighten city oversight of the district.

They also brushed off arguments that the district would smother small business owners under yet another layer of taxation.

"This has been framed by opponents as if it is an onerous tax," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd.

"But the genesis for this was from the business community. It was not from City Hall."

The district would consist of a 98-block area of downtown. Commercial properties in the district would be levyed a tax surcharge -- probably 3.2 percent, although the exact figure would be set by the Board of Estimates.

In return for the surcharge, the area would be patrolled by sanitation workers who would sweep sidewalks and alleys. There also would be security personnel, armed only with walkie-talkies, to assist visitors and provide an added uniformed presence on the streets.

The idea is to free the area of "crime and grime," proponents like to say.

And, they say, a nicer downtown should translate into better business for downtown retailers, who have been all but strangled by competition from shopping malls.

If the bill is approved Monday, the district should be in operation by October, officials said.

While backers view the measure as something that would help business, some council members said the surcharge would pose a hardship for small businesses, many of them struggling to survive.

"This is totally unfair to the small business people," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., D-1st. "I think it is unfair to tax these people one more time."

Mr. D'Adamo's 1st District colleagues, John L. Cain and Perry Sfikas, joined him in voting against the measure.

The rest of the council voted for approval.

Special benefits districts have helped stabilize downtowns in other cities, and more than 1,000 of them have been established around the country.

Baltimore's version would be run by Downtown Partnership, a private management and advocacy group that has existed for the past decade on voluntary contributions.

"The beauty of management districts that work is that they combine the best of government and business," said Laurie Schwartz, president of Downtown Partnership.

While the surcharge would be collected by the city, the employees of the special benefits district would be private employees, probably under contract to Downtown Partnership.

In all, the district is expected to generate $1.7 million a year through the tax levy on more than 1,100 buildings, Ms. Schwartz said. Downtown Partnership hopes to raise another $300,000 for the district from other sources.

The tax district would be bounded roughly by Centre Street on the north, Greene Street on the west, the Jones Falls Expressway on the east and the Inner Harbor on the south.

The council yesterday added an eight-block area near Maryland General Hospital to the proposed district.

Legislation necessary to allow Baltimore to create a special benefits district was approved by the Maryland General Assembly this year at the city's request.

In other business yesterday, the council as expected gave final approval to the $2.08 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. The spending plan, which does not raise taxes, denies city employees cost-of-living wage increases for the second consecutive year.

The budget will result in the closing of two of the city's 77 recreation centers and transfer operation of eight others to private agencies or community groups.

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