More Food Desert Gimmickry in Baltimore

Fresh off the adoption of a personal property tax cut for grocery stores in food deserts, The Baltimore Sun is now serving as a cheerleader for more personal property tax cuts for grocery stores that open there:

The personal property tax incentive now on the table would give supermarket and grocery store owners tax breaks worth about $100,000 on their equipment, based on the size and value of their stores. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but it represents only a relatively small fraction of their overall cost of doing business. The personal property tax on which the mayor is giving these grocers a break isn’t the only tax that is substantially higher in the city than the suburbs, so further incentives like those typically reserved for mega-developments may be warranted, at least until grocers can prove that operating in the inner city can be profitable.

There are some things about this argument that do, in fact, make sense. The idea that personal property tax breaks would spur development of new grocery stores is obvious to anybody with a rudimentary understanding of economics. The idea that these incentives are more warranted for grocery store development than some of the tax-deal shenanigans that we are used to seeing in Baltimore is stunningly obvious as well. And in one instance, it’s already helped a new grocery store open in a food desert.

But as always, this doesn’t address the actual issue at hand.

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Last February, I wrote about this very issue, when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake first proposed the personal property tax gimmick for grocery stores. What I wrote last year remains terribly accurate:

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?

So in an effort to continue to further combat this existing problem Baltimore, cheered on by the local paper, is now aiming to expand a program that already doesn’t work. The expanded program still won’t work, and even if it does it will, as I noted, potentially create more problems with new food deserts in areas that are not targeted by this special personal property tax zone.

While this potential property tax break will again help small aspects of the city, it certainly does not address the grim property tax situation in Baltimore. The one that has stunted economic development and stunted the ability for middle and working class families to live in Baltimore City. Until Baltimore City gets serious about fixing that problem, tax gimmicks like this one will continue to be the norm, and elected officials will still be absolutely puzzled as to why things never improve after 50 years of Democratic leadership.

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