This month residents of Charles Village, that neighborhood of bland gentry sandwiched between the wealth of Guilford and Homeland and the eccentricities of downtown, will have the opportunity to vote on a proposal to tax themselves for better security and sanitation services.
That is, Charles Village -- where I make my home -- has been granted permission by state legislators to state a preference for or against an additional property tax, subject to approval by Baltimore City Council, and create a "benefits district." If enacted, property owners, and by extension renters, would pay an additional percentage on the state's highest property-tax rate to fund projects authorized by a local board of directors.
Mayor Schmoke did not like the proposal at first, but, while voicing some reservations about "Balkanizing the city," he nevertheless supported it during the last legislative session. The mayor thus eliminated the issue from the 1995 mayoral race, saying in effect that despite his own misgivings, he would not stand in the way of the voters' right to choose.
Now, the voters of Charles Village must make that choice, one that will undoubtedly set a precedent for other Baltimore neighborhoods. There are a number of issues to be weighed, some parochial, some at the very heart of the choice to live in the city and choosing leadership to run it.
We already have one "benefits district." The brightly uniformed "Clean and Safe Team" whose members pepper the streets from the Inner Harbor to the foot of Mount Vernon, sweeping the sidewalks, being eyes and ears for the police, and dispensing good cheer and directions to visitors, is funded by a "piggyback" property tax paid by downtown businesses. This has a tremendous public-relations payoff for the city.
Ostensibly, the downtown district has a marketing arm to help bring in new retailers and services. It is unfortunate that high rents and the lack of destination retailers, such as major department stores, are not so easily swept away. Even with the downtown tax district, there is an abundance of available space on our most visible business corridors.
It is ironic then that a brochure to promote the Charles Village Benefits District promises to reduce the number of vacancies and "attract more . . . businesses, visitors and shoppers." This may simply be wishful thinking on the part of the greater Charles Village leadership and the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, which leads the campaign to pass the initiative. As city planners, residents and the business community have found in the recent struggle to put a Safeway store on 25th Street, however, there is no consensus about the identity and development of this neighborhood. Having another layer of bureaucracy between residents and developers will not change that.
Sanitation is an important issue to Charles Village residents. In a neighborhood which takes almost obsessive pride in its manicured urban gardens, the daily chore of picking Slurpee cups from among the peonies can become exhausting. The extent to which our city has been allowed to slide into grime is shameful. The mayor seems to agree, as his recent clean-up order to the Department of Public Works indicates.
It is no less important that a minimum standard of decent sanitation be enforced in Otterbein, Johnston Square and Union Square than in Charles Village. Children who live in the shadow of Hopkins Hospital should no more have to dodge rats in the street than the children who live on the borders of Hopkins Homewood campus. Demanding top service from the Department of Public Works, in exchange for the top dollar already paid in taxes, carries the low cost of picking up the phone and writing a letter to elected officials. Teaching pride in one's home and neighborhood costs nothing.
Charles Village has seen an escalation in crime, particularly street robberies and burglaries, over the past couple of years. It is no surprise that voters will react to a proposal to "provide significant and visible security forces 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." That would seem to describe the Baltimore City Police Department and the security forces of The Johns Hopkins University, both of which maintain a presence in the streets of Charles Village.
Yet even with the community-oriented agenda of Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, increased foot patrols, police sub-stations and cycling officers -- all ideally suited to the traffic patterns and residential concentration of the area -- have not been top priorities with the Charles Village leadership. There seems to be a belief among proponents of the benefits district that having a local authority directing security policy will reduce criminal activity.
This may be true. But contacting the district police commander might also be a good idea. Perhaps the local commanders, officers on the street and residents of Charles Village would like to create a closer working relationship using existing resources to improve the safety of the area, without a private and expensive security force between them.
To long-time Charles Village residents, the benefits district probably doesn't sound like a bad idea. Its proponents have very effectively tapped in to the fears of crime, the disgust with dirty alleyways, and have even gone so far as to promise exemption, (( under certain circumstances, to senior citizens. That does not make it right.
The cleverly designed brochure to promote the district says that will not divide the city or further the gap that exists between city communities. It states that "other diverse communities can elect to form a benefits district." But while the authors of the plan drew the district to include a broad social, economic and racial mix, not all neighborhoods in Baltimore border large institutions that will contribute to the plan; not all have a base of properties with relatively high assessments; not all have a ready-made umbrella corporation to dole out the money that a board of directors elects to spend.
The association president of a Baltimore community with a high rate of poverty said recently that she loved the idea. "It would be great to spend the money where we need it." When asked where the money would come from in her neighborhood, she answered: "Oh, we don't have it. That's why we're not in Charles Village. But I'd love to have that power. We can't get the city to do anything."
Her statement it seems, is both the greatest motive behind the Charles Village Benefits District and the greatest argument against it.
Townes C. Coates is president of Citizens United for the Revitalization of Baltimore.