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Below is the full text of an article I wrote to the Baltimore Sun about Oriole Park at Camden Yards. For some context, I recommend taking a look at the original article that this post counters.

Blaming Camden Yards for unfulfilled promises of economic development is roughly equivalent to blaming a building when the architect is at fault. The Orioles didn’t make promises to turn the City around; they simply agreed to play 81 games a year in Baltimore. In that sense, Camden Yards has done everything it was supposed to do and more. For those who take issue with promises made 20 years ago and not kept, perhaps writing a letter to Mr. Schmoke would be a more appropriate outlet for your frustrations.

As for the comparison between Baltimore and Boston, why not just compare a banana and an apple? Yes, they are cities of comparable size, but the structural and institutional differences are what really spoil the comparison. The Boston area, unlike Baltimore, has several built in job creators. For one, it’s a state capital and might as well be the capital of New England. It’s also home to several of the U.S.’ most prestigious and well-funded universities which are economic development engines in their own right. If the Baltimore area were home to 3 or 4 Hopkins Universities and had 4 subway lines bringing workers downtown, perhaps it would be a more apt comparison. As it stands, however, Baltimore probably has more in common with Pittsburgh or Cleveland than it does with Boston. It’s pretty safe to assume that no city or state wants to publicly finance a Major League Baseball stadium but cities that have been losing population often see having a professional sports team as a sure-fire way to keep people coming downtown. And, for the most part, it works.

Take Camden Yards as an example. Since 1992, its inaugural year, the stadium has brought over 55 million people into downtown Baltimore. By the numbers, if you assume that each of those fans spent just $25 while in Baltimore, which is probably a huge underestimate, the state has earned almost $84 million in sales tax revenue and that figure does not include additional parking and alcohol taxes. The stadium only cost $110 million to build, about $2 for each visitor.

As any Orioles fan can tell you, many in attendance at Camden Yards come from out of state. Despite being annoying at the game, those tourists bring money into Maryland. When you consider the hotels out-of-towners stay at, the gas they buy, the flights they take to get here and the parking they pay for, I would imagine that the taxpayers just about break even or they will pretty soon. And it’s only been 20 years.

Eutaw Street - the main concourse at Camden Yards

The great thing about a classic stadium like Camden Yards is that it rarely needs renovation. The Baltimore Convention Center, however, completed its last renovation in 1997, more recently than Camden Yards was built, and it’s already considered uncompetitive. Compare the two facilities and you’ll see that, in 2010, only 389,000 people attended conventions at the Baltimore Convention Center. That same year, Camden Yards drew a total crowd of 1.7 million. Meanwhile, the Convention Center’s total cost was about $202 million and that doesn’t include the incredibly attractive Hilton across the street that taxpayer money paid for. If you tack on the $300 million in bonds for the hotel, you have a facility that draws 1.3 million fewer visitors to Baltimore each year and cost 5 times as much to build.

The Hilton Convention Center Hotel

With all this talk of economic value and money, it’s easy to lose sight of the intangible benefits a ballpark like Camden Yards gives to a city like Baltimore. Camden Yards has been a source of civic pride for 20 years now and will continue to be for years to come. So consider it a long-term investment in Baltimore because great stadiums don’t need to be replaced: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have been in operation since 1916 and 1912, respectively. Both stadiums are great places to watch the game and destinations for fans across the country. Camden Yards, though it’s only 20 years old, is already a classic. There are a lot of things that could be better in Baltimore but it’s hard to imagine a better ballpark.

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Camden Yards Was Worth It

A view from the upper deck on the third base side at Camden Yards

My response to an article that appeared recently in the Baltimore Sun that called into question whether Camden Yards was was a good investment for Maryland. The response that appears in the Sun is a shortened version. The full text can be found here.

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We live in a competitive country, states compete with their neighbors for business and cities compete with their suburbs for residents. The stakes are particularly high for cities, like Baltimore, that are trying to regain some of their lost population. The latest proposal by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to make Baltimore City , a jurisdiction that is far from a true competitor, more competitive in the region; Baltimore’s property tax rate is currently more than twice that of the counties surrounding it. The cut, which would be implemented in stages over the course of several years, could provide a tax break from a rate of 2.2% to 2.0% by 2020. This cut would save a homeowner whose house is appraised at $200,000, $400: not small change. Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s proposal is modest compared to the proposals of some, which would slash the property tax by even more. The fact is, the City cannot afford to foot the bill for extreme tax cuts but, according to some, including the City’s largest developer, they are necessary to keep the City competitive.

The hope is that a lower property tax rate will encourage people to move into the City, bolstering the Mayor’s efforts to add 10,000 new families to the City. But do the ends justify the means? The loss in revenue due to the tax cut would have to be made up using funds drawn from the operation of a new slots parlor in Baltimore. Though Baltimore desperately needs new sources of revenue, this may not be the right source. Gambling has many opponents: family groups, religious groups and those of the opinion that gambling contributes to an increase in crime.

A rendering of the proposed casino which would be built on Russell Street near M&T Bank Stadium

The Mayor’s proposal does, however, include some wonderful provisions which will exempt vacant properties from any tax reductions and give preference to owner-occupied properties over rental properties. This is the right move; vacant properties cost the City money, stress its neighborhoods and inflate its crime rate.

Vacant Houses on North Avenue

Each of Baltimore’s 16,000 vacant buildings is estimated to cost the City $1500 a year making the total spent on vacant buildings about $24 million a year – and that figure does not include vacant buildings’ effects on quality of life. As a disincentive, the Mayor’s proposal has the owners of vacant properties continuing to pay the same tax rate in addition to the costs of vacant property ownership which can include fees of up to $900 per year. Ideally, the fees, taxes and lower property tax rate for homeowners will result in fewer vacant buildings and more residents in Baltimore City.

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There has been a common theme in the news recently: invest now, save later. There are two huge issues before Maryland’s legislature. One involves raising the gas tax; the other involves raising billions of dollars for school improvements and construction in Baltimore City. The common thread is the need now and the payoff later.

The Gas Tax:

There is a lot of opposition to the gas tax but there is also a demonstrated need for it: just last year, Maryland passed New York as the state with the highest average commute time– almost 32 minutes. The gas tax would pay for much needed improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. These projects would help to lower commute time and repair the State’s ailing infrastructure in other areas. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported that Maryland’s water systems (both drinking and wastewater) need $9.4 Billion in investment over the next 20 years. Water quality improvements are not just for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay, they will ensure Marylanders’ access to safe drinking water.

The ASCE also reported that in Maryland:

  • 29% of bridges are structurally deficient
  • 44% of Major Roads are in mediocre or poor condition and
  • 55% of Major Urban Highways are congested

Traffic on I-83 - lane closures caused by high water - a sign of things to come without investment in stormwater management and transportation infrastructure

Rebuilding Maryland’s infrastructure should be a high priority even for those who will pay more at the pump. Those same Marylanders who are opposed to a gas tax hike are likely the ones will suffer most from increased commute times as a result of inaction. The Baltimore Sun recently exposed the dangers of  allowing the State’s infrastructure to fall apart and the threat of such degradation on an already fragile economy.

Education:

A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would help Baltimore City reach its goal of raising $2.8 billion to put toward improving the City’s schools, many of which lack basics such as heating and cooling systems. Many in Maryland are not in favor of the bill including the Executive Director of the Public School Construction Program, David Lever. Mr. Lever’s criticism is that, if passed, this bill would grant the City a larger amount of money than other jurisdictions which he insists is not “fair”. However, a quick look at the map below will show that Baltimore’s request isn’t about fairness, it’s about need.

A map showing the conditions of various Baltimore City Schools

The allocation of money to Baltimore City over other jurisdictions may not be “fair” from a statewide perspective but it is smart: if the State does not act now, the $2.8 billion will likely grow to 3, 4 or even 5 billion dollars.In other words, the State’s unwillingness to act now will cost taxpayers later. In fact, a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun suggests “that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, society saves as much as $16, offsetting the cost of remedial education, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and incarceration.” That kind of return is one most investors can only dream of and hardly one the State can afford to pass up.

Though investment in our schools may be fiscally responsible, it isn’t about the money. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, understands that and has proposed a $300 million bond to the Baltimore City Council which would be paid for by an increased bottle tax. Baltimore’s kids can’t wait; according to a report issued by Baltimore City Public Schools, students are being taught in schools built an average of 40 years ago, the highest average age of school buildings in the State. Meanwhile, the $32 million made available by the State to the City for school construction in 2012 is barely enough to make the repairs necessary to keep old schools operational. Baltimore’s public schools need a big investment now in order to turn them into great places to learn.

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