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Charles Village tax plan gets Schmoke's backing


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to make Charles Village Baltimore's first residential neighborhood to levy additional taxes pay for private security and sanitation services.

The proposal is envisioned as a way to pay for neighborhood services that the financially strapped city government cannot afford to provide.

Modeled on a program in downtown Baltimore, the proposal was introduced in the General Assembly at Mr. Schmoke's request after being sought by Charles Village community leaders. Baltimore senators discussed it during a meeting yesterday.

The program is subject to the approval of the legislature and the City Council. Other middle- and upper-income neighborhoods in the city have expressed interest in similar districts.

Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that he fears formation of special tax districts eventually could lead to "Balkanization of the city," with services based on a community's ability to pay for them. Nonetheless, the mayor said, he is willing to back a benefits district in the Charles Village area on an experimental basis.

"Let's see if these things work the way everyone expects they will," Mr. Schmoke said. "They may not provide the benefits that everyone thinks they do."

Part of the appeal of the Charles Village district, Mr. Schmoke said, is that the area's estimated 13,000 residents represent a range of income levels and racial groups. Also, the area has a strong residential and commercial mix.

Mr. Schmoke said he still opposes giving communities across the city similar authority, explaining that proliferation of the districts could undermine any hope of reaching a citywide consensus on tax increases or broad municipal policy changes.

The legislation introduced in the House of Delegates by Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., the city legislative chairman, is an expanded version of last year's failed attempt to set up a Charles Village special taxing district. The bill would expire in four years.

"The Charles Village associations have done a lot of work on this. They almost prevailed last year," said Mr. Boston, a Democrat. "This is supposed to be just a pilot plan. If it is to be a thing of the future, it ought to be studied."

Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced last year's failed Charles Village measure and then expanded it to include the entire city, has proposed a citywide bill again this year. He said the measure has support from people throughout Baltimore.

Mr. Lapides also is planning to co-sponsor today a measure that is almost identical to the Charles Village bill proposed by Mr. Schmoke.

"We're having such a tremendous flight of the middle class to the suburbs," Mr. Lapides said. "The only way to retain them is to allow them to create these special taxing districts. . . . It's clear that if we lose that segment of our population, the city is absolutely doomed."

Other city senators say they are skeptical of the benefit districts because many Baltimore neighborhoods do not have the tax base needed to support extra services.

"I'm opposed to neighborhoods being pitted against other neighborhoods," said Democratic Sen. John A. Pica Jr. "I don't want people with yellow jackets patrolling one neighborhood and across the street people with red jackets in another."

Interest among Charles Village residents and businesses in a special benefits district was sparked by the 1990 slaying of David Gordon, a 25-year-old engineer from Whitman, Requardt and Associates who was was shot to death during a robbery in December 1990 as he begged for his life in the company parking lot.

Thomas J. Shafer, the company's administrative partner, is now president of South Charles Village Partnership Inc., a group pushing the special district legislation.

"If we don't get [the special district] this year to save Charles Village, I'm not sure what there's left to save. . . . This neighborhood is in very serious trouble. People are discouraged because of the lack of serious support from the city," he said.

The trend toward communities taxing themselves to provide for services is growing in Baltimore.

Portions of the affluent Guilford and Bolton Hill communities have hired security guards to provide neighborhood patrols. In addition, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Roland Park and Ashburton have expressed interest in the benefits district concept, Mr. Lapides said.

If the bill becomes law, the City Council will fix the formal boundaries of the tax district 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 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 community-based management authority.

The proposal is based on the city's Downtown Partnership, in which owners of commercial property 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,which has received early praise for creating a safer and cleaner downtown, began late in 1992.

No dollar figure has been set for the Charles Village surcharge, but community leaders and city officials have discussed in the past an assessment of 30 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That would be in addition to the city's $5.90 property tax rate -- by far the highest in Maryland -- and the state's additional 21-cent tax rate.

As a result, residential property owners in the area would pay $36 to $72 more a year, the neighborhood association has estimated.

Many owners of commercial property would end up paying several thousand dollars more each year in taxes because of the surcharge.

"We don't pretend that this is going to be the be-all and end-all in crime prevention," said Edward Hargadon, president of the Charles Village Civic Association. "But it gets people working together."

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