Funding the Trough

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed selling four city-owned parking garages in order to fund the construction of new recreation centers in the city. Like most proposals coming out of City Hall, this is a decent idea on the front end, and stupid one on the back end.

As you know, we at Red Maryland have long been fans of privatizing government-owned services, since private operators can run the same facilities with lowers costs and overhead, and can competitively price the same services against the existing private-sector market. The same can be said of these parking garages.

The story notes the return that the Mayor expects the city can get on divesting itself from these parking garages, and there are immediate benefits….even if City Council President Jack Young doesn’t get it:

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he has concerns about the administration’s proposal to raise up to $60 million for recreation centers by selling four of the city’s 17 parking garages. Young noted the four garages are money-makers — bringing in $400,000 annually — and questioned whether it’s wise to forgo future revenue for a quick cash infusion. 

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“I would like the city not to sell them, but lease them, and not just give away the cash cow,” Young said. “I want to make sure that we’re getting our best bang for our buck.”

If you do some quick math, you will note that if the Administration can sell the garages for top dollar i.e. $60 million, that it would take 150 years for the city to make the same amount of money (not counting for inflation) in parking revenue as it would for the immediate divestiture of these assets. And that’s not even counting future increases in the costs of maintenance, salary increases, new physical plant, etc.

Selling these garages is an immediate win for the city, and frankly the Administration should consider selling all 17 of the city-owned garages, particularly the aggregate of them would be similar to the estimated price of these four garages. If you estimate similar costs, the city could raise over $250 million from the sale of all garages.

Where the proposal goes south, however, is the fact that the Administration wants to immediately turn around and spend the money that they get from the sale of the garages on recreation centers. Of course, the city already has thirty-eight city funded recreation centers and an additional seven city-owned, but privately operated, rec centers. Realistically, the city should probably not be in the city-operated recreation center business in the first place, with a more reasonable solution to convert the remaining 38 city-operated centers into privately operated ones. But that of course has not stopped Baltimore City Council members from stepping up to the trough:

Meanwhile, City Council members were already angling to get the best seat at the trough to build state-of-the-art facilities in their districts.

Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore, said he will not vote for legislation enabling the garages to be sold unless he receives assurances that future projects will include neighborhoods with the most children. Two such neighborhoods — Cedonia-Frankford and Belair-Edison — are in Scott’s district. 

“It’s a great win for young people,” Scott said of the plan to sell the garages. “But the only way that I will support this is if it’s done the right way. We should not be doing things haphazardly. We should be building and renovating centers where the kids are.” 

Councilman Nick Mosby is lobbying for the city to build a “premier” recreation center in West Baltimore, which he represents. He said he wants the city to consider crime and poverty when selecting where to place new project. 

“It’s important to look at: Where are the challenges in our community? Where is the blight?” Mosby said. “It’s not like we have these opportunities often.”

It’s of course unsurprising that any elected Democrat in Baltimore City would angle for the spotlight, particularly Councilmen like Mosby (remember his attempt to boycott Florida?) or Scott (the brains behind  the new useless city curfew law). But while they are attempting to eat at the trough and bring home the bacon to their districts, have any of the City Council members stopped and asked if this is truly the best use of the city’s windfall.

An influx of $60 million is roughly $120 for every man, woman, and child in the city of Baltimore. Imagine if that $60 million was, instead of being used as a handout to sure up support for their re-election campaigns, was instead used to fund a small property-tax cut for city residents and businesses? What if that money was used to pay down debt service, to reduce future property tax increases?

No, that would be nutty wouldn’t it. Why would the City Council take positive steps to improve Baltimore when instead they could try to make sure to bring shiny new stuff to their Districts to buttress their re-election campaigns. Councilmen like Brandon Scott and Nick Mosby are show horses, not workhorses in trying to improve Baltimore City. They would rather grab at the fleeting resources that are made available to them instead of taking proven and positive steps to try and improve Baltimore’s economic climate.

The garage sale plan is a good idea that is desperately in need of competent execution on the back end. And it seems that city leaders would rather have rec centers than jobs and a growing tax base. And hat’s why Baltimore has the problems that it does.

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