A coalition of former city officials, business executives, academics and economists seeking a ballot referendum that would have cut city homeowners’ property tax rates fell short of the number of signatures it needed to get on the ballot, the group said Monday.
Renew Baltimore, which wanted to reduce the property tax rate by 44% over a six-year period, said it obtained about 9,000 signatures of the 10,000 required to put the question to voters. The group was collecting signatures for two petitions, one to amend the city charter and the other to set and cap city property tax rates
The city’s property tax rate, the highest in Maryland, currently stands at 2.248%; neighboring Baltimore County’s is 1.100%. Starting in fiscal year 2024, the property tax rate would have fallen by about 0.15% until it was capped at a rate of 1.25% — still higher than adjacent jurisdictions, but more competitive, the group said.
The initiative sparked both praise and criticism from city boosters, residents and elected officials, with some arguing in favor of creating an incentive for potential homeowners and others fretting over the decreases to city services it would necessitate. The cuts would have forced significant reductions to what city officials already refer to as a strained operating budget, which funds items ranging from trash and recycling pickup to police and fire, homeless services and health care.
It comes as the city also must fund other urgent priorities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic response and an education reform package called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which requires increased state and local contributions to school districts.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration opposed the measure, calling the idea half-baked and presumptuous. Earlier Monday, city Budget Director Bob Cenname referred to it as “a really bad proposal” while appearing on WYPR’s “Midday” program.
“The idea is you slash the tax rate and hope there’s new investment that comes in ... we strongly feel that’s not the case,” Cenname said. “You’d have to grow the population to over 900,000 in a six-year period to make this work. Baltimore has a lot of untapped potential, but it doesn’t make sense to reduce a 70-year decline in six years.”
The coalition, which referred to itself as a “grassroots” movement, boasted a slew of high-profile backers, including former federal Judge and City Solicitor Andre M. Davis; former Baltimore City Councilmembers Rikki Spector and Carl Stokes; economist and Sage Policy Group CEO Anirban Basu; and Stephen J.K. Walters, chief economist of the Maryland Public Policy Institute.
When asked, Basu, Renew Baltimore’s treasurer, declined to say how the coalition arrived at the new figures. He said more people would be inspired to move to Baltimore with the reduced rates, even in spite of the possible reductions to city services.
“What has been impending is a lousy value proposition: The voters of Baltimore City believe we need to alter the status quo,” Basu said in a June interview. “We’re going to give them an option.”
Basu said more remote work options could compel more current Washington, D.C. residents to move to Baltimore, given a lower tax rate. The city owns an abundance of vacant housing, he added, ready and primed for the taking.
But current city officials said the calculus that potential homeowners weigh when debating moving in or out of the city is usually more complicated. Often, the decision comes down to more than just taxes, Cenname said.
“Taxes is one of the reasons, but not the primary,” Cenname said, citing school quality, the crime rate, jobs and commuting as more decisive factors in city residents’ moving patterns.
Registered as a ballot issue committee with the Maryland campaign finance reporting system, Renew Baltimore reported raising $10,100 in contributions, according to its latest filing. All of it came from coalition member Matt Wyskiel, the founder and owner of Skill Capital Management, an investment advising firm.
The group paid $8,000 to Burton Research and Strategies, which describes itself as a campaign consulting shop that handles “public opinion, message development, and voter contact solutions,” according to owner Jim Burton’s LinkedIn profile. The firm previously has advised Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and helped conduct research for the Maryland Public Policy Institute.
Nneka N’namdi, chief operating officer of Fight Blight Bmore — a social justice organization that focuses on community development — said the initiative would have caused harm, especially for renters who rely on city services, as well as those who are living in homes whose tax values are disproportionately higher than properties in other parts of the city.
“If equity is what they’re really after, if just, fair taxation is really what they’re after ... then they would start with that assessment issue because it actually predates the rate hike,” N’namdi said.
The tax exempt status of some nonprofits and educational and medical institutions — some of which have large real estate holdings — is another crucial tax equity issue that should be addressed prior to pushing for an overall rate decrease, N’namdi added.
If the petitions had garnered enough support to submit for the general election ballot, city officials still would’ve needed to verify the signatures as well as vet the legality of the ballot language. Groups hoping to add a referendum for voter consideration usually aim for thousands more signatures than required to offset those that can’t be verified.
City officials have publicly voiced opposition to the initiative in the lead-up to Monday’s deadline. Weeks earlier, officials were circulating an unattributed memo that listed various talking points they could use to rebuff the coalition’s positions.
Scott, in a Monday evening statement, said the coalition’s proposal would have further marginalized residents that rely on social services to get by. He said his administration would continue to provide those solutions while also developing solutions that “responsibly” reduce the property tax rate.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a Democrat who represents the 14th District, said while she “applauds” the coalition’s attempts to address property tax rates, she didn’t think it would have passed legal scrutiny or benefitted the city.
“This would have been devastating for the city; I think people know and understand it’s a problem and ... we need to have a more robust discussion about what to do,” she said.
In a Monday afternoon news release, Basu said the coalition would remain committed to “stemming Baltimore’s absolute and relative decline.” Others called on elected officials to take notice of the group’s momentum.
“The fact is, we came very close to securing the required number of signatures in a competitive primary season and in a short time frame, while inspiring what can only be described as a tax revolt among Baltimore City residents,” said Stokes, the former City Council member who has lost elections for mayor and City Council president.
“We want to assure Baltimore City voters,” he said, “that we’ll continue to pursue our initiative with every confidence that we’ll prevail in two years’ time if our elected officials fail to act in the meantime.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Emily Sullivan and Sophie Kasakove contributed to this article.