Baltimore: It’s Not Just The City’s Problem

A disaster for Baltimore is a disaster for Maryland. It would be futile to pretend it’s not a dreadful reflection on the state when its largest city erupts in rioting that leaves police injured, hundreds arrested and many businesses looted or burned out. The images broadcast on cable television and being shared on social media — images of crowds gleefully looting pharmacies and liquor stores, while police cars burn on debris-strewn streets — will loom over the reputation of Baltimore and Maryland for a long, long time.

The Capital, 4/29/2015

We’re now a few days past (hopefully) the Baltimore Riots. Much has been made about the why and the how the riots started. Where they because of the Freddie Gray tragedy? Was it people from out of town? Was it people from in town? Was Monday’s riot a youth mob? Did police provoke the confrontation? Did Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unwittingly allow the riot to take place?

All of those questions are important, but not in the context of moving forward. The riots happened, and much like the 1968 riots the damage and destruction was focused on the part of the city that was least in need of additional challenges and stresses.

We’ve talked frequently at Red Maryland about the city of Baltimore. It’s an important part of our way of life here in the state. While I have always lived in Anne Arundel County, I easily identify with Baltimore; it’s where I was born, it’s our media hub, and it’s the largest city in our state. What happens in Baltimore is not just a problem that affects city residents. It has an impact on our entire state across a broad spectrum of disciplines: health, education, transportation, culture, sports, and commerce.

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That’s why Baltimore isn’t Baltimore’s problem. It’s Maryland’s problem.

Much of the blame that goes around in Baltimore can be traced back to city government. It’s accurate to say, as Kevin D. Williamson says in the National Review,  that “Baltimore is a Catastrophe of the Democratic Party’s Own Making.” Democrats have been entrenched in power in Baltimore City long before any of the current rioters were born. The last time a Republican had an office in City Hall was 1967 when Mayor Theodore McKeldin’s second tenure ended. No Republican has sat in the City Council since 1939. For far, far too long, the status quo at City Hall has not been challenged. And that’s the fault of conservatives and Republicans more than anybody else. While the commitment has been made recently by the Maryland Republican Party to get back and really make outreach into the City, the sins of the past (i.e. not paying any attention to what was going on in City Government) have truly hurt Baltimore’s ability to have a meaningful conversation about how city government works.

Baltimore City’s problems, as they relate to city government, come from a complete and total lack of focus on the issues that can help combat poverty in Baltimore City. As we have documented here, and has been documented in other places, the priorities of city leaders focus on individual developments near the downtown corridor and not improving the quality of life of Baltimore’s citizenry. Over the last thirty years, large scale development projects have focused on the Inner Harbor, Canton, Harbor East, and other areas adjacent to the downtown core. One look at the Baltimore Development Corporation project map shows the heavy concentration of investment in projects that are in the downtown business corridor, with little to no projects in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

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Equally damning is the fact that city government and the Baltimore Development Corporation is robbing themselves of future tax revenues in order to finance these schemes. Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) see businesses pay an agreed-upon tax rate instead of the regular tax rate. Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) see the city actually float bonds for private businesses to build things and hope that the property taxes make up for the bonds later. So the city is screwing over the taxpayers coming and going: by artificially reducing the amount of tax revenue the city brings in, while also paying debt service on bonds issued to private businesses.

And of course, the recipients of these PILOTs and TIFs are always among Baltimore’s most politically connected business owners and investors.

It isn’t just a city problem. The controversial State Center project was championed by Martin O’Malley as a state-level project (in conjunction with the Democratically-connected folks over at “Center” Maryland). Lt. Governor Anthony Brown was dogged on the campaign trail by his involvement in a state financed project that was bedeviled by problems.

While economic development is important, funding economic development to politically connected cronies is hardly the way to prosperity for Baltimore’s economically disadvantaged. These mega projects may make the developers wealthy, and they may make the city (theoretically) extra tax revenue, but none of that is helping fix the problems of neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester. It’s not fixing the schools. It’s not fixing the infrastructure. It’s not creating jobs for local residents. It’s not lowering the tax burden for city residents. It isn’t making it easier for local residents to open a business.

While most of these problems are caused by the city government, we are all feeling the brunt of them in one way or another. Residents fleeing Baltimore means more residents moving into the suburbs, creating more sprawl and more strain on existing infrastructure. Higher taxes in the city create fewer manufacturing jobs, a lower overall tax base, and schools that fall far, far behind national and state averages. The surrounding counties pay the price for the sins of Baltimore’s leaders, too.

How do we fix it? Stay tuned. We’re going to roll out some new ideas, some new approaches to trying to fix the problems of the city. It’s pretty easy right now to say #WeLoveBaltimore. But it’s also pretty easy to point out the problems that Baltimore has without trying to come up with something resembling a solution. So in the coming months, look for new ideas on how to make a Better Baltimore.

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