Shocked into action two years ago by the brutal murder of a young father of two, a community association in Baltimore's Charles Village is asking the legislature for the power to tax residential and commercial property owners to pay for private security services.
The proposal for a "community benefits district" is the first time that a city neighborhood has asked the government to allow it to raise tax money on its own for private services such as security and sanitation.
"We're not trying to take the place of the city," said Thomas J. Shafer, the administrative partner of Whitman, Requardt and Associates, who is viewed as the father of the plan to take back the neighborhood streets and keep businesses in the area.
"The first thing you do is sign a contract with the city that they will provide a baseline of services," Mr. Shafer said. "We won't have enough money to police or clean this area. This just gives us an extra level of support that we need."
Mr. Shafer became involved in trying to improve the area around the consulting firm at St. Paul and E. 24th streets, after one of his engineers, David Gordon, 25, was shot to death during a robbery in December 1990 as he begged for his life in the company parking lot.
"That gave us the impetus to get involved," Mr. Shafer said. "It caused a lot of stress among our 300 employees, and it caused us to look around the neighborhood and ask could we remain in the city and still attract the kind of employee base we need here."
After meetings with city officials in 1991, the 25th Street Task Force was born to study community concerns and figure out a way to stem the neighborhood blight. The result was a recommendation for a South Charles Village Community Benefits District, which would be overseen by a quasi-public management authority.
That authority -- basically a community association board of directors -- would administer the private security and sanitation services, as well as programs for beautifying and marketing the area to attract new businesses.
Legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly would allow the city to slap a tax surcharge on both residential and commercial properties in a 32-block area -- basically an area bordered by Howard Street and Guilford Avenue between E. 20th and E. 26th Streets -- to pay for services in the special district.
"If you lose those businesses, you lose twice: You're talking about losing jobs and tax revenue," said Del. Kenneth Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, who introduced the enabling legislation Friday in the House of Delegates.
"It's not the best situation, but it's something, until the city can pay for additional services," Delegate Montague said. "Right now, I think the city and state are hamstrung with what services they can provide."
Already a portion of the affluent Guilford community in North Baltimore has hired off-duty police officers to provide neighborhood patrols -- and the interest in additional security is spreading.
Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, is expected to sponsor enabling legislation for the Charles Village plan on the Senate side of the State House. And he also is talking about introducing a bill to create a special taxing district for his own Bolton Hill neighborhood, which has already initiated a private security program paid for by residents.
"I mean in Bolton Hill they're paying $520 a year, $10 a week, (for security) and it isn't even tax deductible," Mr. Lapides said. "If it were a special benefits district, it would be included as part of the property tax, and therefore, tax deductible."
The senator said he is also weighing introduction of legislation in Annapolis that would enable neighborhood groups citywide to petition theCity Council to start programs similar to the one in South Charles Village. City officials, however, predicted that such a proposal would run into trouble.
The original draft of Delegate Montague's Charles Village bill extended the northern limit to E. 29th Street, a 15-block area. But opposition at a community meeting 2 1/2 weeks ago by residents who said they had not received adequate notice of the possible surcharge convinced city and state officials to pull back the boundary to E. 26th St.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who has been behind the plan from its inception, agreed at the meeting to shrink the boundaries, when some residents north of E. 26th Street turned confrontational with community leaders and elected officials.
"We're going back to where we have consensus and support. . . . We need to get this legislation and get it moving," Mrs. Clarke said. "I don'twant to jeopardize two years' work."
If the bill became law, the Baltimore City Council would then fix the formal boundaries and set out the powers of the management authority by ordinance.
The authority's financial plan and assessment rate then would be set and approved by the Board of Estimates, the body that controls the city's finances.
The city would bill property owners for the additional private services as part of the annual property tax bill, collect the money and then turn it over to the South Charles Village Community Benefits District Management Authority.
The proposal is based on the city's Downtown Partnership model, in which commercial property owners in the central business district are taxed an extra 23 cents per $100 of assessed value to fight "crime and grime." That quasi-public program got under way late last year and should be in full swing next month, city officials say.
While no dollar figure has been set for the South Charles Village surcharge, community leaders and city officials "have zeroed in" on an assessment rate of 30 cents per $100 of assessed property value, Mr. Shafer said. That amount would be in addition to the city's $5.90 property tax rate -- the highest in Maryland -- and the state's additional 21-cent tax rate.
Based on a survey of the area's assessable tax base, residential property owners would pay between $36 and $72 more a year, the group estimates in its financial plan.
Commercial property owners, however, would end up paying several thousand dollars more each year in taxes, because of the surcharge. For instance, Whitman, Requardt, which already has
private security on its property, would end up paying about $4,000 more, Mr. Shafer said.
While about 50 percent of the buildings in the area are residential, about 70 percent of anticipated revenue would come from business and commercial property owners, Mr. Shafer said.
The 30-cent surcharge on 969 area properties -- 58 percent of which are residential -- would net the authority about $127,000, according to a preliminary financial plan. If the area were extended to E. 29th Street, the area would encompass another 605 properties -- 89 percent of which are residential -- and bring in another $84,000, the plan estimates.
By contrast, the Downtown Partnership's 23-cent surcharge on commercial properties in the 98-block downtown management district is projected to yield $1.7 million. Another $300,000 is expected from private donations and contributions from tax-exempt properties within the district.
In addition to a core group of managers, the Downtown Partnership's budget will pay for 35 uniformed, radio-equipped "public safety guides" -- the security element of the effort -- and 28 uniformed sanitation workers.
By contrast, the neighborhood's $127,000 would buy two security guards and two sanitation workers, as well as an administrator of the program, said Lawrence M. Principe, president of the South Charles Village Community Association.
"The money only goes so far; people understand that," said Mr. Principe. "I think they realize there's not going to be someone on every street corner. . . . But they hope that they can look out their window and see someone they recognize, a security person, someone sweeping their alleys, an identifiable person who's being paid from that $72 or whatever it is a year.
"Seeing their taxes in action is what really wins people over," he said.
It is a concept not lost on elected officials.
"People are saying, 'We're willing to pay more, if we're going to get what we need,' which is different from, 'We don't want more property taxes,' " Mr. Montague said. "People don't trust government."