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You get a car. You get a car. You get a car: Baltimore must stop incentivizing its employees to live elsewhere | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Fire Department patch. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun).
Baltimore City Fire Department patch. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun). (Ulysses Muñoz)

Earlier this month, Baltimore’s inspector general issued a report critical of the city fire department’s policy of assigning 35 take-home vehicles. As such reports go, it was hardly the most scandalous to come out of the IG’s office, perhaps not even this summer given the July report on a $12 million splurge on police overtime pay over the last two fiscal years. What it found was that rules regarding those fire department vehicles (and their supervision) are pretty loose, with the cars costing the city $165,770.47 annually for maintenance and repair. That’s in no small part because the vehicles rack up a lot of dubious miles. For example, the city’s alleged ban on using them to perform personal errands? As the report’s authors note, the BCFD chief “acknowledged a more relaxed policy” where piling into the city-owned car to get to a family meal at a local restaurant was accepted practice. The presence of that city-owned vehicle in the parking lot making it all that much easier for the firefighter to get to the scene of an emergency should need arise mid-meal, apparently.

But here’s the real eye-opener. As the report makes clear, some of those vehicles end up in the hands of senior fire department employees who live a considerable distance from the city. At least seven are provided to employees who live at least 35 miles away — out of state in Pennsylvania in many cases. At least one has been commuting 59.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Queen Anne’s County. That’s one way. Collectively, those handful of workers rack up more than 100,000 miles each year which adds up to more than one-third of that maintenance budget. And this is justified for one reason only — to make it easier for these supervisors to get to the scene of emergencies faster and more reliably. Really? Wouldn’t living nearby do that job much better and more cheaply? Of course, it would. But that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the department.

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Let’s be clear. Baltimore has been losing residents for years. Recently-released U.S. Census figures show the total population has dropped to 585,708, a 5.7% reduction from a decade earlier and the lowest tally in a century. A 5.7% decline may not sound like much — two rural Maryland counties (Somerset and Allegany) fell by more on a percentage basis over that same period — but it adds up to more 35,000, the equivalent population of an Owings Mills or Severna Park. In 1950, Baltimore had 950,000 residents at its peak. And this gradual attrition has consequences in lost tax dollars, employment opportunities, economic development and on and on. The affluent have the means to leave the city if they choose. Quite often, those living at or below the poverty line do not. There are any number of reasons for these losses from red-lining and racism to crime, drug addiction and excess incarceration. But the bottom line is the bottom line: The last thing Baltimore should be doing is encouraging anyone, let alone its own employees, to leave town let alone underwriting that opportunity. Taxpayers have every right to scream about that.

Baltimore can’t order its rank-and-file city employees to live in the city. That practice is banned by state law and ought to be. But providing a financial incentive to live far beyond the city’s borders? That’s just crazy. We know that wasn’t the intent of the city’s fire department leadership but it’s clearly an effect. Most of the fire department’s nearly 1,800 employees will never get a car on the city’s dime, but what sort of message does it send to the newly-hired that senior supervisors with six-figure paychecks happily use their city vehicle to commute to Pennsylvania? Isn’t that a perk? Aren’t they showing how it’s done? Why would that young worker seek to live in Baltimore?

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Granted, this is about just 35 vehicles. But take-home vehicles have sometimes been an issue for public works and police as well. A 2020 “Civic Innovators” report took issue with how the city’s fleet of 1,261 active vehicles (1,009 of which belong to the Baltimore Police Department) is managed. But there are complexities here: Does the presence of a take-home police vehicle in that officer’s driveway deter crime or is it just a perk? Does it help Baltimore retain quality officers? As observed in last year’s report, which was put together with help from local business leaders, 96% of patrol officers want to take their cars home.

Meanwhile, how many other examples are there of city agencies offering incentives to live elsewhere? About half of city employees reportedly live beyond its borders. Is Baltimore doing enough to encourage those folks to stay closer to their job? Last year, the city approved a $2,500 property tax credit for low-income municipal staffers willing to buy property inside the city limits. It’s not been flooded with takers, Comptroller Bill Henry reports. We would encourage Mayor Brandon Scott to take a firmer hand here with cost-effective strategies that both reduce costs and provide incentives for city workers to live in Baltimore. Or at least reduce incentives for them to live far away — and rack up big maintenance bills commuting in city-owned cars.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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