Baltimore retail business district leaders accuse the city of sloppy accounting

Baltimore's retail districts have lost tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years due to sloppy accounting by the city, business leaders said at a Monday hearing.

Stores, restaurants and other enterprises in the city's 10 designated business districts are required to pay annual fees to the city, which are then disbursed to local merchants' associations.

But retail association heads charge that businesses that do not pay the fees — which range from $100 to more than $1,000, based on size — are not penalized. The city does not sue to recoup lost payments, keep track of which businesses have paid or provide an itemization with the checks sent to the associations, leaders of the groups say.

"The word is out on the street: If you don't pay it, nothing happens to you," said Claire Corcoran, coordinator of the Highlandtown Merchants' Association. The group, which funds decorations, cleaning and festivals, believes it has lost more than $40,000 over the past three years due to fees that were not collected or not turned over to the association.

By law, the housing department is responsible for collecting the fee, but the task has been delegated to the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's quasi-public development arm. The finance department is charged with maintaining records of the payments and pursuing delinquent businesses.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Highlandtown and who called the hearing before the legislative and judiciary committee, which he chairs, demanded that the finance department submit paperwork by May 10 that details the program's finances and lists pending lawsuits.

Jules Edward "Sonny" Morstein Jr., head of the Federal Hill Business Association, said the hearing made him "misty-eyed" because he has long complained about poor accounting. "These are the things we have been asking for, for years," he said.

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