Baltimore plans to offer $2,500 a year property tax discount for police and firefighters. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
At a time when Baltimore is struggling to mend the fraught relationship between its police and the communities they serve, encouraging law enforcement officers and other first responders to live in the city where they work makes a lot of sense. Police need to be seen as more than just stern guardians of the peace; they also need to be recognized as members of the community. City residents need to see the police not just as an oppressive, occupying force but as people who put their lives on the line every day to protect their fellow citizens. And police need to recognize the people they are sworn to protect as neighbors, not just potential criminals.
Building that sort of trust isn't something that can be legislated or accomplished by judicial fiat. But government can and should offer incentives for both sides to view each other more positively. That's why we applaud the city's effort to help make that happen by offering a property tax credit to officers and other first responders who choose to make Baltimore their home. The City Council voted unanimously this week to give preliminary approval to legislation providing police, fire and other personnel a significant break on their property taxes if they choose to live in the city rather than the suburbs, and we suspect at least some city workers would be more than happy to forego the hours-long commute at rush hour to and from Harford County or York, Pa. If they lived here, they'd already be home.
Baltimore officials have been talking about a property tax break for first responders at least since the tenure of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who first floated the proposal in 2015. It turned out the city couldn't enact it on its own at the time, however, because state law required legislators in Annapolis to pass special enabling legislation first. In 2016, state lawmakers — led by then state Sen. Catherine Pugh — did their part, but it took nearly nearly another year for city lawmakers to do theirs. Now the council has scheduled a final vote on the bill, after which it will go to Mayor Pugh, who has said she will sign it.
Baltimore should look at other opportunities to use tax credits to lure people who can make the city a better place. For years Baltimore school superintendents have suggested tax breaks for teachers, hoping to attract bright young graduates of Teach America and other educational training programs that target inner-city children. Now that the council has finally approved such credits for police and firefighters perhaps city schools CEO Sonja Santelises will call for revisiting the possibility of expanding the plan to include city school teachers and administrators too.
How well the incentives work will depend on many factors, of course — not least of which is how open police and firefighters are to the idea. No doubt, Baltimore's high property taxes present disincentive to police officers and firefighters as much as they do any other potential residents, but it will probably take more than a $2,500 break to change a departmental culture in which more than 80 percent of police officers live outside the city. Financial factors clearly aren't the only ones at work here. But combined with the community-relations-building the department will undertake as part of its consent decree with the Department of Justice, expanded efforts to recruit city residents to join the police force and other incentives and retention measures, this tax break could begin to turn the tide. Police in some other big cities — notably, Philadelphia and Chicago — .choose urban living over the suburbs. There's no reason why we can't accomplish the same thing. And if their presence helps stabilize the neighborhood and makes the city overall a more vibrant, attractive place to live and work, we can't imagine a better outcome for Baltimore or its residents.