The only sure things in Baltimore are crime and taxes. But since all of our local candidates are focusing on crime, I wanted to take a moment to cry out into the urban wilderness about taxes.
Like migrating birds, it seems as if every three years Baltimoreans can be seen climbing up to their rooftops to protest inflated assessments, only to go back into their nests to mournfully mull their situation. But unlike the recent past, where the patience to bear heavy tax burdens was sustained by the promise of ever-increasing home values, I fear the fortitude of taxpaying families in Baltimore is waning.
As a past community leader and full-time activist for many quality-of-life issues, I have received feedback from citizens all over Baltimore about city life - the good, the bad and the intolerable. The good would consist of city living and all that it has to offer: proximity to work, retail, recreational activities and the inspirational endeavor of residents to improve life in their communities. The bad would be crime and education, where the seasoned citizens of Baltimore have become numb to the reports of progress and political promises.
But the intolerable issue, the one that compels residents to execute an exit strategy, is property taxes.
As property owners, we have endured bloating tax bills propelled by reassessments. For city coffer collectors and spending doves, these appraisals conveniently occurred at the peak of the housing market, where the average home assessment rose about 53 percent. In 2005, the city experienced a budget surplus of $37 million, and in 2006 almost double that, $60.6 million. When these announcements were made, I got excited. I remember thinking that when a war is won, the troops come home - so, in the fiscal equivalent of this analogy, the dollars should come back ... right?
We now know that the announcement of surpluses was enabled in large part by a white-hot housing market and incentives for development that attracted new inhabitants to invest in Baltimore and stemmed a 20-year flight. Families and first-time homeowners looked past some of the problems that have plagued our city and made a calculated risk, believing in the promise of change.
What most of us could not anticipate was becoming enmeshed in an almost conspiratorial-seeming web spun by real estate speculators and tax assessors. Oh, and about those surpluses? Word from City Hall is that our elected officials have found plenty of funding needs and will not be coming back to the homeowners with any meaningful reduction in tax rates.
This, then, is what we are left facing today: a diminutive property tax decrease of 2 cents, a busting real estate market, a shifting surplus of education dollars, and ever-escalating homicide rates.
A family I know just told me of their decision to move out of the city. I think to myself: Was it all just a dream? Would a more hefty tax reduction make amends for the peak market rate assessments and keep this family here? Probably not - but it would buy time for the tired but buoyant citizens who invested in the dream - and would without a doubt make Baltimore more attractive in the municipal competition to lure the prospective home buyers from the Base Realignment and Closure process.
I cannot accept the claims of candidates that people are lining up to get into the city. In this election season we, the overtaxed homeowners of Baltimore, want to hear from the candidate who understands that our future socioeconomic health can only be provided by a larger base of lower-taxed property owners, rather than our current reverse course.
I hope that at the very least the issue becomes a larger part of our primary season conversation. But if the solution to the crime problem that everyone's talking about is not to have any caring citizens to prey on, then perhaps we're on the right course.
Keith Losoya is a Baltimore taxpayer and executive director of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.