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Baltimore's overall property tax rate of $2.248 per $100 of assessed value is still about twice that of surrounding counties.
Baltimore's overall property tax rate of $2.248 per $100 of assessed value is still about twice that of surrounding counties. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Folks chirp about high taxes in Baltimore, but no one offers a plan that’s real — or realistic. At a recent town hall, however, I heard a concrete, responsible plan for the first time that will reduce city property taxes to the same rates as neighboring counties. The proposal was not from a civic-minded billionaire, but from the first, really inspiring public-minded leader: mayoral candidate and former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah. Watching him in this town hall conversation sealed my support for him.

His plan to reduce the tax rate step-by-step over 10 years, conduct transparent audits to find and cut wasteful spending, and counteract potential revenue loss by raising taxes on abandoned property is as smart and sensible a strategy as any I’ve heard in my years as the now-former head of a local public radio station. His tax plan — visionary and actionable — reflects exactly the kind of leadership Baltimore needs in its next mayor.

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Property in Baltimore City is taxed at twice the rate as property elsewhere in Maryland. This is a relic of a time when the city could justify higher property taxes — when cities offered more services and hence cost more to run, even if run effectively and efficiently. That is hardly the case today. Residents and businesses have figured out they can pay less in Maryland counties for better schools and low crime. If anything, city taxpayers should be offended by how their money has been misspent over the last decade.

To reduce crime, we need jobs. To create more jobs, we need more businesses and property taxes that families can afford. High taxes are a deterrent to both business and residents under the best of circumstances; they are decisive when crime is high and people are leaving. During the town hall, it was clear that Mr. Vignarajah has a plan for the most pressing issues facing Baltimore, talking effortlessly on a range of topics from reducing crime and rooting out corruption to improving schools and repairing infrastructure. I also witnessed what we most remember (and miss) about Mayor Donald Schaefer, a sense of real urgency and the corresponding clarion call to “do it now,” to fix it now, to start it now.

To be sure, cutting property taxes suddenly will not work. There are too many other challenges facing Baltimore, and the market will not respond that fast. But between FY2019 and FY2020, there was an increase in overall revenue of about 4.5%. Which means a gradual cut of 1.5% each year — which is what Mr. Vignarajah’s plan contemplates — would by the end of his first term put us back just to where we were in 2019. And that assumes there is no increase in revenue from rising property values or a resurgent population.

Lowering property taxes is no panacea. Take it from me, tax plans are not exactly the kind of click-bait media outlets like. And only one television station attended the town hall to cover the bold, savvy proposal. People who care about Baltimore need to read and hear and talk about these topics more. True leaders do not just say what people want to hear — they talk about what people need to hear. By acting boldly and creatively to foster a disciplined budget, lower taxes, and create a competitive business environment is exactly the kind of no-nonsense leadership Baltimore needs. I once read that a former Baltimore police commissioner described Mr. Vignarajah as a “once-in-a-generation lawyer and leader.” I can now see why.

Tony Brandon (tbrandon@agmgroup.biz) is the former president and general manager of Baltimore’s WYPR, which he led for 17 years.

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