Baltimore’s Self-Inflicted Wound

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 19, 2015 — Baltimore City stands to lose tens of millions of education dollars in Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s budget and much, much more in future years.

But Hogan is not at fault. City leaders, past and present, are to blame.

Baltimore’s self-inflicted wound was preventable and obvious. Yet elected officials chose to ignore it.

Now city schools will pay the price.

Tax-Avoidance Schemes

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and past Mayors Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley and Sheila Dixon got carried away with a tax-avoidance scheme that has enticed investors into the city.

These favored investors are allowed to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) and are given Tax Increment Financing  (TIF) deals that divert their property tax payments into public improvements for their developments.

The net result: New construction downtown but no tax windfall for city government.

Indeed, big projects like Harbor East and Harbor Point pay virtually no taxes to the city. The same would be true for the State Center development and the massive, now-bankrupt Westport project.

Yes, some of those PILOTs and TIFs led to development activity in Baltimore that never might have happened without these quite large and long-lasting incentives.

Damaging Tax Breaks

But someone forgot to get out an adding machine and calculate what these non-taxpaying projects would do to undercut Baltimore’s state school aid.

A big chunk of what the city receives in school funds from the state is determined by a formula based on its property valuation. The poorer a jurisdiction’s wealth base, the larger the state’s contribution.

Harbor Point and Harbor East helped Baltimore’s property wealth rise substantially. The formula assumes that this translates into markedly higher property tax revenue.

That’s not so if you’re handing out TIFs and PILOTs like sugar-coated cookies.

Baltimore’s property tax collections aren’t benefiting from these heavily subsidized projects. Now the state’s school-funding formula dictates the city will get $13 million less than last year due to all those new downtown developments.

Less School Aid

Down the road, Baltimore’s  state school aid will shrink even more as additional projects receive lucrative tax-exemption deals from the city. Most of these tax-avoidance schemes run for decades, which compounds the damage.

There’s no doubt city leaders had to offer enticements to jump-start downtown and near-downtown development, especially after the Great Recession. But they got carried away.

Any new and glitzy proposal outside the Central Business District seems to have won a major tax-relief prize.

Now the same officials who handed out those tax-avoidance awards to developers are scrambling to avert a big cutback in school aid.

They probably will get some money restored, thanks to Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh’s position as chair of the House budget panel.

New Critique Needed

They might even succeed in amending the formula language to take into account Baltimore’s unique situation.

What isn’t likely to happen is a frank reevaluation of Baltimore’s overly generous use of TIFs and PILOTs. It’s a good idea taken to dangerous extremes.

Think what Baltimore could do with $13 million-plus in its budget every year. That tax money isn’t helping city schools — it is helping developers who may not even need generous subsidies in today’s markedly improved development climate.

It’s time for city officials to analyze what went wrong — and fix it. Defending the indefensible no longer works.

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