Petitioners behind a ballot measure that aims to slash Baltimore’s property tax rate nearly in half submitted over 23,000 signatures to elections officials Thursday, far more than the proposal needs to go before voters this November.

The proposed charter amendment, which is backed by a group of economists and former elected officials, would gradually shave Baltimore’s highest-in-Maryland property tax rate over seven years, reducing the rate from 2.248% to a maximum allowable level of 1.2% by 2031.

In City Hall, the measure has stoked fears of cratering finances. On Thursday, Mayor Brandon Scott said the proposal would drive Baltimore into bankruptcy. Earlier this month, a broad coalition that includes Scott, City Council members, labor unions and progressive groups launched an opposition campaign calling on voters to reject the measure.

Around two dozen organizers with the property tax reform measure, known as Renew Baltimore, gathered Thursday morning outside City Hall alongside stacked boxes of petitions and argued that their proposal would help to reverse decades of population decline, bring in new investment and lower crime — jump-starting the economy and counteracting losses to city revenues.

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Ben Frederick III, a realtor and volunteer with Renew Baltimore, called the proposal’s seven-year, phased timeline a “fiscally responsible” approach that would strengthen the city’s finances, not deplete them as critics argue.

This marks the second election cycle that Renew Baltimore has circulated petitions for its property tax plan. The group got a late start to petitioning two years ago and failed to garner the 10,000 signatures needed to make the ballot.

Should the measure qualify, though, a coalition of city unions, elected officials and progress groups are organizing to defeat it. Calling themselves “Baltimore City Is Not For Sale,” the coalition debuted their counteroffensive earlier this month at a firehouse in Pigtown.

At the rally, attended by numerous members of the City Council and union organizers, the group called Renew Baltimore’s predictions of an economic revival a “fantasy”, arguing that the measure would obliterate services, force teacher layoffs and close libraries and firehouses.

Defeating the measure could be an uphill battle for city leaders.

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Historically, once a charter amendment appears on the ballot, Baltimore voters have almost always approved it. In 2022, voters approved seven different charter amendments, with the least popular proposal — a measure to impose term limits on elected officials largely financed by Sinclair Inc. executive David Smith — passing with 71% of the vote.

It remains unclear how vulnerable the Renew Baltimore measure is to legal challenges.

The city’s Law Department has so far remained tight-lipped about its position on the measure. But Courtney Jenkins, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO Unions, said in a statement Thursday that opponents of the measure believe only the mayor, City Council and General Assembly are authorized under Maryland law to set property tax rates, and called on state and local officials to assess the legality of the measure before allowing it to appear on the November ballot.

Asked about potential legal challenges after Thursday’s news conference, Frederick pointed to other jurisdictions around Maryland have imposed caps on their property tax rates and said Renew Baltimore is confident their measure will hold up.

In a statement Thursday, Scott called the measure a “dramatically short-sighted and naive proposal would bankrupt the City of Baltimore,” robbing its residents of needed services. The first-term Democrat said the proposal fails to grapple with the financial reality of the city — noting that unlike many of its peers Baltimore does not receive a cut of the state sales tax — and lumped the property tax measure in with proposals financed by Smith to impose term limits on City Hall and cut the size of the City Council.

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For the measure’s backers, “the cuts to city services and negative consequences are a feature, not a bug,” said Scott. “This proposal would be bad for all Baltimoreans, and worst of all for Baltimore’s working families that rely on our city services the most. Everything from trash and recycling pickup, adequate fire and EMS response, Recreation & Parks facilities and programming, our beloved public library system, and thousands of city employees’ jobs will be on the line.”

Renew Baltimore has not received donations from Smith, who recently purchased The Baltimore Sun. The biggest financial backers of the proposal are real estate and development groups, according to state campaign finance records. The group has reported donations totaling $30,000 from the political action committee of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association and another $23,000 from the Greater Baltimore Board Of Realtors’ committee.

Another $25,000 in contributions have each come from Terra Nova Ventures LLC and CFG Community Bank, along with $10,000 from HHG LLC; $15,000 from Rukert Terminals Corporation; and $10,000 from former mayoral candidate Mary Miller.

Politicos and economists pushing the Renew Baltimore plan argue that the city’s high property tax rate drives away residents and businesses to surrounding jurisdictions, like Baltimore County. Baltimore’s coffers have suffered from decades of declining population, and backers of the reform measure say an aggressive cut to the property tax would bring waves of new residents and investment into the city.

“The undeniable fact here is that no city can thrive when it penalizes its residents with a tax rate that is twice as high as that is available right next door,” Stephen J.K. Walters, a Loyola University economics professor. “Our critics will say that we can’t afford to cut rates, but the truth is that we can’t afford not to.”

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Walters, whose book “Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream” prescribes ways to reverse the fortunes of shrinking cities, pointed to affluent and heavily gentrified cities like Boston and San Francisco as examples of places that saw an economic revival after residents adopted state-level tax reform. Closer to home, Walters noted that Prince George’s County has grown into one of the most affluent majority-Black counties in the country since a late-1970s property tax cut, while Washington, D.C.’s economic fortunes have reversed since a tax cut in 1999.

Property taxes are among the largest sources of revenue for the city, accounting for close to a billion dollars of the city’s coffers in recent years.

Scott pointed in his statement to a recent report from his budget office, released last month, in which finance officials warned of dire consequences from the aggressive tax cut, forecasting that within a decade the measure would result in an annual structural deficit of nearly $900 million. In order to make up for the lost revenues, budget officials project that the city would have to offset its population decline of the last 50 years in just seven years.

November promises to be a landmark year for Baltimore ballot questions. In addition to the property tax cut, the Baltimore City Is Not For Sale coalition is advocating against the Smith-backed measure to slash the size of the City Council, while voters will also be asked whether to allow the proposed redevelopment of Harborplace.

Though the tax cut proposal has stoked anxiety in City Hall, Renew Baltimore counts several former elected officials among its ranks.

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One of them, former Councilman Carl Stokes, said Thursday that criticisms from those wondering how the city will cover for the millions of dollars in lost revenue from the property tax cut is a “stupid, disingenuous question.” He pointed to the city’s decision close to 20 years ago to build an Inner Harbor hotel and grant it millions in tax breaks. The city-owned property continues to bleed money today.

“Who made up the difference? Who made up the gap for the $52 million that we didn’t get?” Stokes asked. “All of the people who are homeowners in Baltimore City made it up.”