Lower property taxes but higher fees for city residents

Baltimore residents will pay less in property taxes but more in stormwater and taxi fees under a $2.4 billion budget approved by the City Council on Monday.

The cut will reduce the property tax payments on a home valued at $200,000 by about $140. But the same resident will pay $40 to $120 for stormwater cleanup and a 25-cent fee on each taxi ride — with another water bill hike on the horizon.

The result? The cost of living in Baltimore could go up for many people.

"Hopefully, it'll be a wash for residents," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore. "Obviously, if you have a larger property, and more impervious surface, it's going to be more that you have to pay."

The budget includes a 2 percent raise for city workers, but they will see cuts in their health and pension benefits, and civilian employees will start contributing 1 percent of their salaries to their pensions. Overall, the changes will help close a $30 million projected budget shortfall.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said her budget, which the council approved with few changes, is designed to help the city attract new residents.

"I'm working very diligently to reduce our property tax, so we can have property tax competitiveness with the surrounding jurisdictions," the mayor said Monday. "We're trying to do it in a responsible way that allows us to have a fiscally sound budget but to also plan for investments in the future."

The one part of her spending plan that is still pending is the proposed 15 percent increase in water bills, which the administration has said would raise rates for the typical customer by more than $100 a year. That proposal faces a vote by the city's Board of Estimates later this month.

The $2.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 represents about a 3 percent increase from this year. The capital budget is another $1.2 billion, 80 percent of which will go toward updating, maintaining and repairing water and wastewater infrastructure.

The budget allocates $10 million for demolishing vacant homes, $10 million for resurfacing at least 200 miles of roads and $6.5 million to upgrade and operate recreation and after-school centers.

It also includes a new tax on billboards in the city — $15 per square foot for those that change images electronically, and $5 per square foot for those that don't.

While the council let much of the mayor's budget proposal stand, it did reduce the administration's proposed charges for stormwater cleanup, which were required by state law.

The council approved a stormwater fee plan under which homeowners will pay $40 to $120 per year, depending on the amount of paved and other surfaces that allow rainwater to wash pollution into waterways. The council limited the fees for business customers to 20 percent of property taxes — and it approved an 83 percent cut to the administration's proposed rates for religious institutions.

The fees — sometimes derided as a "rain tax" — are designed to pay for stormwater treatment, wetland restoration and other projects aimed at improving Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Only Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore, voted against imposing the fees. He said he was opposed to a state-mandated fee that didn't come with any funding from the state.

"My district is one of the heaviest impacted," he said, referring to small businesses that have large parking lots. "They're going to be hit hard by this."

Even so, Scott said, he was pleased with the budget overall, given the cuts to city services in previous years.

"There are no rec centers closing, which is a great thing," he said. "There are no fire closures, which is a great thing. There are no layoffs, which is a great thing. Employees will actually get a raise. It shows we're starting to come out of the recession, slowly but surely."

But some council members said they were displeased with a requirement that municipal workers would have to start paying into their pensions.

The mayor plans to require Baltimore's non-public-safety workers to contribute another 1 percent of their salaries to the pension fund each year for five years until workers contribute 5 percent. In return, employees would get a 2 percent raise each year for a total raise of 10 percent.