First District Councilman Jim Kraft said that he supports the idea of a separate fee for trash pickup, but only if its a “dollar-for-dollar tradeoff” in which the portion of property tax that funds trash pickup is cut.
Cutting that 27 cents, said Kraft at a Hampstead Hill Association meeting last Thursday, would put the city’s property tax rate below $2 “for the first time since the 1960s.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we change the whole dynamic of the city of Baltimore,” he said.
According to Kraft, a lower tax rate would help lure more people to move to the city.
“We’ve got the infrastructure, and we’ve got the space to host 850,000 people,” he said.
Kraft felt the need to clarify his position on the “trash tax,” an idea mentioned by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as a way to lower property taxes, and which he has been reported in the press as supporting.
Currently, Kraft said, about 70 percent of property owners pay property taxes in Baltimore. The other 30 percent—churches, government, nonprofits, schools—are exempt. So, 70 percent are paying for a service used by a larger amount. Kraft conceded that many business and other entities pay their own trash carriers, and so wouldn’t pay the trash fee.
Still, he predicted, about 85 percent of property owners would pay the city for the service, broadening the base that bears the cost.
Due to more people paying for the service, Kraft said, a separate trash fee would be lower than the tax dollars currently paid by a given resident for trash pickup. Kraft said that many of the entities currently exempt from property taxes, such as neighborhood churches, use the city’s trash pickup.
Kraft said that an attempt to institute a trash fee wouldn’t happen this fiscal year, “because it’s too complicated,” but he and some colleagues may try to launch a similar “pilot program.” That program would remove the property taxes allocated for the Recreation and Parks budget and fund that department with an “enterprise fee” instead.
Kraft said that unlike the trash fee, 100 percent of city property owners would pay the Recreation and Parks “enterprise fee.”
“We could increase the money we’re spending on parks and still have people pay less than what they’re paying in property tax now,” he said. “It changes the entire paradigm. It causes a change in how we look at government and government funding.”
Ten-year fiscal report
Kraft also spoke about a fiscal report issued last month by city-hired consultants Public Financial Management Inc. that predicted the city would be $745 million in the hole in 10 years.
He called the idea that Baltimore was going bankrupt “a bunch of crap.”
“Don’t believe it,” he said. “It assumes you don’t balance the budget for 10 years, and it keeps adding up.”
Kraft said that the city is required to balance the budget every year, a point that renders the study’s conclusions moot.
“We’re not the federal government,” he said. “We can’t deficit spend.”
Kraft, a noted proponent of environmental legislation, observed a couple problems with the stormwater fee, a proposed law currently in City Council that would require that property owners pay a fee based on the amount of impervious surface—concrete, asphalt, and other surface areas that prevent stormwater absorption—on their properties.
“For the majority of the southeast, the fee will be $4 a month,” Kraft said.
One of the proposed fee’s problems, which a committee of business owners, nonprofits, residents, city employees and other stakeholders is reportedly trying to solve, involves the huge expense that can be incurred by owners of industrial and business properties. For non-residential properties such as businesses, impervious surface is measured and divided into Equivalent Residential Units of 1,050 square feet. For every 1,050-square-foot ERU of impervious surface on the property, the owner would be charged $72 per year.
“You take a guy like Ruckert Terminals on Clinton St.,” said Kraft. “It’s all impervious surface—their fee is going to be in excess of $50,000 a year.”
The councilman said that the stakeholder committee is currently trying to find a credit system in which property owners can do something—plant trees for example—to bring their fees down.
Another problem with the state-mandated stormwater fee, Kraft said, is that “really, the people that surround [Baltimore City] should be paying more.”
“Particularly Baltimore County,” Kraft said. “They are like a hand around our neck—look at a map, you can see it.”
He said that because Baltimore County sits in Baltimore City’s watershed, “we can do what we want down here, but unless they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, we’re banging our head against the wall.”
Kraft was clear about where he stands on reverse angle parking.
“We’re putting it in everywhere it can go, engineering-wise,” he said. “When the weather starts getting better, you’ll see it happening.”
by Erik Zygmont