Maryland lawmakers, for the fourth consecutive year, will consider a bill that would enable Baltimore’s mayor and City Council to set a higher property tax rate for vacant, blighted and abandoned properties.

The bill, sponsored by members of Baltimore’s Annapolis delegation, passed in the Maryland House of Delegates last year but fell short in the state Senate. In previous attempts, it failed to land a state Senate co-sponsor.

State Sen. Antonio Hayes testified in support of the measure Wednesday while Del. Regina Boyce — who has introduced the bill each year since 2021 — testified to lawmakers Thursday.

Previous iterations of the proposal sought not just to raise taxes on delinquent property owners but also to lower them for owner-occupied households. The latest version of the bill narrows the scope, authorizing city government to set a special property tax rate for vacant lots or for properties cited as vacant and unfit for habitation. There are about 35,000 vacant lots and properties in Baltimore, according to city estimates.

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If it wins approval from state lawmakers, the special tax rate amount would be determined by the mayor and City Council after a series of public meetings, said Nina Themelis, who testified in support of the measure Wednesday on behalf of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration. Dan Ellis, CEO of the Baltimore-based Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, said during testimony that many property owners opt to pay a few hundred dollars in taxes every year instead of rehabilitating or selling as they wait for a larger payout down the line.

“This bill provides another tool in the toolbox,” Themelis said to members of the Budget and Taxation Committee. She said it ranked among the mayor’s top legislative priorities this session.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who joined Themelis at the committee hearing, said the measure would complement an existing law in Baltimore that enables attorneys to foreclose when liens exceeds property values. A vacant corner store in her district, she said as an example, would either have to pay up, sell or get to work to avoid the higher tax.

Boyce told The Baltimore Banner in 2022 that the bill has been modeled from similar legislation in Washington, D.C., which imposes higher tax rates on vacant and blighted properties. That policy has been criticized by local leaders there, though, for enabling exemptions and undercounting the total number of eligible properties.

— Hallie Miller

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Cohen endorses Parker for his open council district seat

Councilman Zeke Cohen will endorse Mark Parker for his open Baltimore City Council seat.

Cohen previously faced off against Parker, the pastor at Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, to represent Southeast Baltimore’s 1st District in the 2016 Democratic primary. Cohen won with 27.3% of the vote, while Parker finished fourth with 17% of the vote.

Now, Cohen is vacating his district seat to run for City Council President.

Parker and Cohen are slated to formally announce the endorsement at a campaign event at The Chasseur in Highlandtown scheduled for 11:00 a.m. today.

Campaign finance reports released last week show that Parker has banked the most money in the primary race. The pastor raised more than $120,000 in 2023 and has about $135,000 in cash on hand.

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Liam Davis, a Greektown resident who worked in the office of then-City Council President Jack Young as chief clerk of the City Council before joining the city’s Department of Transportation as a legislative affairs manager in 2019, is also running as a Democrat. He has about $87,000 on hand. Joseph Raymond Koehler reported raising about $23,300 last year, and has just under $2,000 on hand.

Candidates have until Feb. 9 to file to run. The primary is May 14.

— Emily Sullivan

Acting solicitor becomes permanent

Ebony Thompson, the first female and first openly gay top attorney in Baltimore history, was confirmed this week as city solicitor.

Thompson’s confirmation on Monday by the City Council formalizes the role she has filled in an “acting” capacity since January 2023, when former Solicitor Jim Shea stepped down. She came into the department a year earlier as deputy city solicitor under Shea.

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A graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law who left private practice to join the city, Thompson spent the last year as “acting” solicitor because she was 11 months shy of a required decade of bar membership when Mayor Brandon Scott first chose her for the job.

Thompson grew up in Northwest Baltimore, the daughter of a public school teacher and Bethlehem Steel electrician. As a junior in high school at City College she interned in the Law Department before going on to Brown University and later law school.

“That I am now leading the very department that gave me my start is a full circle moment and a testament to the importance of intentional investment in our students,” Thompson said at a confirmation hearing before the City Council last week.

Baltimore’s top attorney makes $245,000 a year, a raise of 30% from the previous salary, which City Council changed last summer.

In her confirmation hearing, Thompson pointed to signature accomplishments from her time in City Hall, including launching a legal tool to tackle Baltimore’s vacant housing crisis, an experiment in blockchain to supplement that effort, and shepherding the Baltimore Police Department through its federal consent decree. Last week, Baltimore leaders announced that the Police Department had come into compliance with two key requirements of its consent decree, nearly seven years to the day after the department first came under federal oversight.

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The appointment of Thompson to acting solicitor has raised questions about the city’s ties to her former law firm, Venable LLC, which leads the team charged with independently monitoring efforts to reform the Baltimore Police Department under a federal mandate.

A military veteran who served in the Marine Corps reserves, Thompson told council members that she used participate in an extracurricular tackle football league until she broke her leg during her time as deputy solicitor. Now, she spends free time practicing karate with her eldest daughter, she said.

Ronald Weich, dean of the law school at the University of Baltimore, spoke in favor of Thompson’s confirmation at last week’s hearing, calling her a “pioneer” and a “star” in the legal world.

“As I see it, Ebony Thompson has the word ‘acting’ in her title only because the drafters of the city charter couldn’t imagine a young lawyer as brilliant, capable and ready to lead” as her.

– Adam Willis

This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of the Maryland House of Delegates.

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