Citizens willing to pay for a say in services


Like a lot of Baltimore residents, Denise Cellinese says there's "no way" she'd want a tax increase if the money went into the city's coffers.

But Ms. Cellinese -- who owns a home and runs a business in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area -- is willing to have a 30-cent tax increase to pay for security patrols and street-sweepers run by a neighborhood group.

"We want the money to be used for specific reasons -- to maintain our neighborhoods the way we'd like to," she said yesterday. "We don't want the money to go in every direction."

In Bolton Hill, Jane Earhart voices similar sentiments.

"Who's to know if the funds from a general tax increase would be used in our neighborhood? The money might be dissipated," she said.

Their attitudes are the driving force behind a new proposal to establish a special tax district in midtown Baltimore. If approved by the council and endorsed in a referendum of residents and property owners, the district would be the third created in the city in the past three years.

The city's first "grime and crime" district was set up in the downtown business area in 1992. Last year, Charles Village residents and property owners approved a similar district.

The midtown district, proposed in a City Council bill Monday, would link the other areas, creating a swath from the edge of the Inner Harbor to the Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimoreans' willingness to consider tax increases aiding their neighborhoods comes as the city struggles to ease its overall tax burden -- an effort to retain and attract middle-class homeowners.

Twice in the past three years, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposals to increase the piggyback income tax to raise money for public safety went nowhere; and twice the mayor, prodded by the council, trimmed a nickel from the city's property tax rate.

The city's long-term financial plan calls for a 20-cent reduction in the property tax rate by 2000. The reduction would be made annually in nickel increments beginning in July 1996 -- though some council members said they will push for a decrease this year.

The current property tax rate -- $5.85 cents per $100 of assessed value -- is the highest by far in Maryland.

Former Maryland Del. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, a sponsor of the state legislation allowing special tax districts in city neighborhoods, calls their proliferation a "compromise."

"The preferable thing would be to have the city do these things without special benefits districts, but the city doesn't seem to be capable," said Mr. Lapides, a Bolton Hill resident and a candidate for city comptroller.

"We want to keep the middle class in the city. If this is the only way to do it, then we'll have to do it," he said.

But Daniel J. Loden, leader of a citywide group that advocates leaner government and lower taxes as a way to attract more middle-class residents, fears that the districts will have the opposite effect.

Mr. Loden, president of the Homeowners' Coalition for Fair Property Taxes, said he understands the motivation of some residents in pushing for the special districts. But, he said, the districts make some of the city's more attractive and historic neighborhoods more expensive to live in.

"I think it's a trend in the wrong direction," Mr. Loden said. "I think it's going to hasten disaster."

He added: "The city should be able to provide the services its citizens need. We might as well privatize the whole city."

Some midtown property owners agree.

Collin Clarke -- who owns Mr. Mole, a Bolton Street bed and breakfast, as well as a home on Lafayette Avenue -- estimates that he pays $10,000 a year in property taxes.

"I feel that's enough," he said. "We get very little for our taxes as it is."

Equally vehement was a spokesman for the owner of Bolton Hill's Sutton Place Apartments, which would have to pay an additional $8,400 in property taxes.

"This takes the pressure off the city from doing the job properly," said Ron Brant, director of properties for Boston-based Eastern Properties. "Where's the incentive to change things?"

But supporters of the proposed midtown district include several of the large nonprofit organizations that lie within its boundaries. The organizations are exempt from taxes, including city property taxes, though many reportedly have pledged to contribute to neighborhood cleanup and safety efforts.

Mebane Turner, president of University of Baltimore, said his institution "would expect to pay an appropriate assessment."

"I just think this a real opportunity for disparate neighborhoods to join together for the enhancement of the city," he said. "I look at it as a way to get greater neighborhood involvement."

And many residents and community leaders say they feel that having cleaner, safer streets is worth the extra cost -- which they calculate to be about $150 a year for some of the more expensive single-family homes. In Bolton Hill, some families contribute $350 a year for a private security patrol, so they could actually save money.

"As long as people feel their money is being used for their benefit, they don't mind paying in," said Sheila Bittner-Schmidt, a Bolton Hill resident. "A lot of people around here send their kids to private schools. They don't mind paying that."

Deborah Diehl, first vice president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association, said she has "never had anyone sweep my street" in the eight years she has lived in Bolton Hill.

But she says her support of the special tax district isn't a criticism of the city. It's a a vote of confidence in urban living.

"We're definitely affirming life in the city," she said. "We feel we need a little more than the city can provide."

She added, "We feel it will help us attract new residents. It should increase property values."

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