Paying for BRAC

The Baltimore Sun

With the prospect of tens of thousands of new jobs headed to Maryland courtesy of the military base realignment and closure (BRAC) decisions, the last thing needed is to fuel a series of economic development bidding wars that pit county against county or against Baltimore. Yet that is the danger when Annapolis starts talking about giving subdivisions greater authority to offer tax breaks to BRAC employers instead of spending money where it ought to go - on badly needed local infrastructure.

Fortunately, it appears Gov. Martin O'Malley is interested in avoiding just that as administration officials this week recommended changing their approach to so-called BRAC Revitalization and Incentive Zones. Under the newly amended bill, subdivisions can still seek to have companies locate in areas designated for growth, but local tax abatements wouldn't be mandatory.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., for instance, would like to see a white elephant warehouse in Middle River turned into BRAC-related offices and private residences adjacent to a local MARC rail station. Some help from the county may be needed, but cutting the owner's property tax bill is not necessarily the best approach.

The point is that newcomers, whether they've come because of BRAC or because Maryland is simply a good place to live and work, ought to bear an appropriate burden of taxes - not as a punishment (and certainly not to deter them) but because it's the fairest way to finance vital infrastructure and services.

That's why another element of Mr. O'Malley's BRAC bill - one that gives local government greater leverage in negotiations over payments in lieu of taxes from those who create private developments on military bases - is fundamentally sound, too.

Developers may complain that they should only pay for services they'll receive, such as roads, and not for services provided on base, such as police protection, but that's not how our society works. By that reasoning, the elderly should never have to pay for schools or the rich for social services. We are all part of a larger community, and our obligations extend beyond our property lines.

Meanwhile, if Maryland wants to offer a tax break to military contractors, the one on the top of the list should be to scrap the 6 percent computer services tax on businesses of all kinds. As it stands, the tax offers a significant incentive for firms serving Aberdeen Providing Ground (at least those with a substantial investment in computers) to locate in nearby Delaware or Pennsylvania.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who oversees the administration's BRAC-related efforts, has shown he understands the complex issues involved in this challenging transition. But whether Maryland is adequately prepared for the next few years - and particularly whether BRAC-related development will be directed to where it's best suited - remains to be seen.

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