Mayor’s Gimmicks Symptom of Small Thinking

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is promoting a gimmicky to Baltimore’s “food desert” problem as part of a city tax package:

The supermarket tax proposal would let the city grant a 10-year break on personal property taxes —for items such as freezers and cash registers — to grocers that locate in certain areas of the city. The tax sale proposal would increase the amount of back taxes or outstanding water bills that could trigger a sale to $500, up from $250, and add other protections for homeowners.
“You have to figure out strategies to help eliminate food deserts,” said Rawlings-Blake, pointing to the city’s push for farmer’s markets to accept food stamps, the expansion of urban agriculture and the appointment of a food czar about five years ago, one of the first positions of its kind in a major U.S. city.

“We continue to drive forward this vision to make quality food accessible,” she said.

One in five residents live in so-called food deserts, which are defined as pockets in the city where the nearest grocery store is more than a quarter-mile away, many residents are low-income and nearly half don’t have access to a vehicle.

The legislation would enable the City Council to waive personal property taxes for a decade for companies that open grocery stores where none currently operate. The city also could make the tax break available to stores that undergo major renovations in places that offer residents few options for healthy food.

Kudos (in one respect) to the Mayor for coming up with an innovative solution to the issue of food deserts. But Rawlings-Blake is merely a gimmick to solve one problem that will create others.

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It’s understandable that Rawlings-Blake wants to attack the issue of food deserts, something that she has tried to combat through gimmickry before. Private dollars have also been trying to combat this in the past. Just last year, the General Assembly approved legislation to spend $1 million to encourage locally-sourced produce be sold in these food deserts.

The problem with these gimmicks, though, is the fact that they do nothing to solve the actual problems that are creating food deserts in the first place. The USDA definition of a food desert is “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).” The political definition of this is often expanded to include low-income communities. Which means that the problem of food deserts goes far beyond that of just location of a supermarket, and includes solutions which go well beyond personal property tax breaks.

A comprehensive solution to food deserts is going to require a greater emphasis on public safety, on job creation, and tax relief for Baltimore’s citizens. The city is going to have to go out of its way to make *all* of Baltimore more hospitable to businesses, job-creation, and residents. While a personal property tax break for these grocers is nice, it doesn’t absolve or eliminate their property tax, business tax, and other fee and tax burdens from them. Nor will it raise the prosperity of the neighborhood to create higher-paying jobs that would allow local citizens to purchase more nutritious food.

Even if you discount those factors, what new food deserts may be created based on this personal property tax break? Will new stores open up in existing food deserts at the expense of current stores in areas that are not considered food deserts? Why does Rawlings-Blake believe that taxes should be collected separately depending on which part of the city that you are located?

Something I wrote about City Government back in December 2013 dealing with Baltimore’s budget deficit seems applicable to this situation: <
If the mayor and City Council really wanted to show leadership, they would do the three basic things they need to do in order to close the gap: cut discretionary spending, eliminate waste and redundancy in government, and lower taxes to attract new residents and business development to the city.

Those same solutions would help to combat food deserts too, particularly the idea of lowering taxes for all of Baltimore residents. Stopgap solutions to address the idea of food deserts may seem nice on paper, but they do nothing to combat the long-term effects of poverty, wages, public safety, education, and jobs in the City. We all want and need an economically viable Baltimore in order to drive the region’s economic engine. Solutions to address issues like food deserts are quick fixes, but reflect the small thinking of Baltimore City leaders who, as I have said once before (much to the chagrin of the Mayor) spend more time focused on issues outside of the city.

Baltimore can be saved. But it’s going to take big thinking and real leadership, not gimmicks, to make it happen.

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