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Baltimore City Council approves tax credits for urban farmers

City Council approves tax credits for urban farmers, gives key approval on anti-human trafficking bill.

Urban farmers would qualify for property tax breaks of 90 percent, under a bill the City Council sent Monday to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Rawlings-Blake is expected to sign the bill granting the tax breaks to farmers who grow and sell at least $5,000 of fruit and vegetables a year.

Councilman William "Pete" Welch, the bill's sponsor, said the credits could help improve eating habits in the city, and in turn address some of Baltimore's health disparities. The credits could be used for five years before they would need to be renewed.

"We have to make available fresh fruit and vegetables, and we have to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables," Welch said. Some "people make decisions based on price, not on health."

Welch said the majority of his district is in a food desert, and residents lack easy access to supermarkets.

About a dozen urban farms operate in Baltimore, up from two in 2008. Many don't meet the minimum 5-acre threshold to qualify for a state-authorized tax break.

Farmers would need to submit an application to the city for approval.

In other business, the council gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring hotels in Baltimore to train their staffs to spot signs of human trafficking. Council also formally issued a call for the CitiStat agency to improve its operations.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who sponsored the anti-human trafficking bill, said the Interstate 95 corridor is a major route for sex and labor trafficking. Police have said they've received some reports of human trafficking in parts of the city, but tracking the crime is difficult.

"The more people we can train to identify signals of that trafficking, the more likely it is we are going to be able to catch some of the people involved, and the more likely we are to identify some of these victims," Kraft said.

A companion bill, which was also given preliminary approval, would add whistle-blower protections for employees who report suspected cases of forced prostitution or involuntary servitude.

Rawlings-Blake supports the bills, which still need final approval from the council, according to a mayoral spokesman.

Kraft's proposal doesn't require any specific amount of training. The city's Health Department would be required to approve the hotel training programs. The agency also would certify the hotels have trained their workers during the facility's annual licensing.

The legislation originally prohibited hotels from renting rooms for less than half a day, but that provision was struck from the final version.

David Reel, president of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, said the industry believes the bill "goes a little further than necessary" but won't oppose it.

"We're still concerned about provisions that require every employee of the property to have training," Reel said. Some hotel workers, such as those in a hotel accounting department, may have little, if any, interaction with guests, he said.

"Overall, we can live with what's being proposed," Reel said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the council wants CitiStat to improve its accountability and to complete and regularly post reports online. It also wants director Mark Grimes to "devote his full time and attention" to running the agency.

The council approved the resolution without discussion.

Clarke called for a hearing into the agency last month after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun revealed that CitiStat failed to meet its own performance standards. The report also noted that Grimes has a private legal practice.

Grimes has defended his record, saying the agency has been effective under his leadership.

The agency uses data to monitor city services, including analyzing data from the city's 311 call center.

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