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by Fern Shen3:35 pmJun 12, 20240

Backed by big bucks, measures to slash taxes and shrink the City Council draw opposition

Labor unions and city electeds launch a campaign against two City Charter questions, headed for the November ballot, that they say will hurt the average citizen

Above: Councilman Zeke Cohen, union leaders and others speak out against referendums to reduce the size of the City Council and to lower the property tax rate. (Fern Shen)

Elected officials, labor leaders and progressive activists have kicked off a campaign aimed at defeating two proposed measures headed for the ballot in November – one to cut Baltimore’s property tax rate and another to reduce the size of the City Council.

Passage, they argue, would mean disastrous cuts to city services and constituent assistance, disproportionately impacting Baltimore’s Black and low-income residents.

“Which essential services do you not want anymore? Do you not want your roads? Do you not want fire? Do you not want police? Do you not want DPW,” asked Councilman Zeke Cohen, who is set to become the next City Council president after his Democratic primary win last month.

“My daughter is going to public school in the city, and I’d like to see her teachers get paid and not get robbed by some small property tax reduction that would result in them having to be laid off,” he said, going on to also denounce the proposed City Charter amendment that would reduce the council from 14 to 8 districts.

When knocking on doors across Baltimore during the primary campaign, Cohen said, “You know what I didn’t hear, even once? ‘I want less representation on the city council.’ Nobody said that.”

Highlighting the motives they say are behind the two ballot measures, several speakers at yesterday’s news conference pointed to their sources of funding.

“This is all part of a larger corporate agenda to enrich the already wealthy, while gutting and privatizing public services,” said Courtney Jenkins, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO.

“It feels like there is dark money behind these ballot initiatives that are selling snake oil and calling it holy ointment,” American Federation of Teachers-Maryland President Kenya Campbell said, drawing applause from the crowd of coalition representatives.

“We are supposed to believe that a nearly 50% cut in revenues for the city will be made up with a massive influx of new residents. And the city is expected to have ready for these new residents, high quality services without resources to provide those services?” Campbell continued. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Kenya Campbell AFT-Maryland president, speaks out against tax cut initiative, Renew Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

American Federation of Teachers-Maryland member Chris Patterson speaks out against efforts to get voters to approve a property tax cut initiative in November. (Fern Shen)

Developers and a Media Mogul

State records show that the campaign to shrink the number of Council districts is solely supported by David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group and, as of January, the co-owner of the Baltimore Sun.

Smith bankrolled the political action committee supporting the initiative, People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement or PEACE, which collected $340,000 from him last year.

The conservative media executive also spent big to support Sheila Dixon’s failed mayoral bid and a number of other failed primary candidates. (In 2022, he financed a ballot measure, approved by voters, that imposes term limits on the mayor, comptroller and the City Council.)

The campaign to reduce the number of council districts is intended to “directly impact Black political power in Baltimore,” said Joshua Harris, representing the NAACP at the rally.

The second proposal to reduce the tax rate from 2.248% to 1.2% over the next seven years is supported by a different entity that’s almost entirely funded by developers, real estate companies and other business interests.

According to records on file with the state, the “Renew Baltimore” campaign raised more than $238,000 last year from donors that included:

CFG Community Bank, which last year bought naming rights for the Baltimore Arena – $25,000.

• Terra Nova Ventures, founded by David Tufaro, developer of Mill No. 1 and Montgomery Park – $25,000.

Rukert Terminals Corporation$15,000.

Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors PAC based in Timonium – $23,000.

The Multi Housing Association PAC based in Owings Mills – $40,000.

Mary Miller, 2020 Baltimore mayoral candidate – $10,000.

John A. “Jack” Luetkemeyer, a developer who contributed $650,000 to Smith’s PAC supporting Sheila Dixon – $2,500.

• Joseph Schapiro, CEO of Leutkemeyer’s Towson-based Continental Realty Corp. – $2,500.

• Caves Valley Partners, Towson-based developers of Cross Keys and the Cross Street Market – $2,000.

Tax Cut Benefits “a Fantasy”

Appearing yesterday next to a large sign that said “Baltimore City is not for Sale” were nearly 50 people, including representatives of the City Union of Baltimore, AFSCME Council 3, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers, International Association of Firefighters Locals 734 and 934 and UNITE HERE Local 7 as well as Progressive Maryland and Jews United for Justice.

Elected officials present were Council Vice President Sharon Greene Middleton and council members John Bullock, Kris Burnett, Odette Ramos and James Torrence as well as Mark Parker, who won the 2024 Democratic primary to represent the First District.

Also on hand was Marvin James, Mayor Brandon Scott’s chief of staff.

Listening quietly amid the gaggle of media was Ben Frederick, a top organizer of the very tax reduction effort they were opposing. His company, Ben Frederick Realty, contributed a total of $30,400 to Renew Baltimore.

Speaking afterwards with The Brew, Frederick took exception to the suggestion that RenewBaltimore is fueled by “dark money” or that it aims to exploit the city.

“I was born in Mercy Hospital. I live a half a mile from where I grew up. I have lived in the city all my life. I love this city, and it pains me to see the city declining,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

“I love this city, and it pains me to see the city declining. That’s why I’m doing this” – Ben Frederick, Renew Baltimore.

The Renew campaign argues that cutting Baltimore’s tax rate, which is more than double that of neighboring counties, would attract new residents and spur economic growth in a city that has been losing population for decades.

Such an economic stimulus would bring in new revenue that would allow the city to continue to fund its budget and maintain services, the group says.

Real property tax rates compared. (Renew Baltimore)

Real property tax rates compared. (Renew Baltimore)

Opponents yesterday called that notion “a fantasy” and “a mirage.”

Baltimore would need to gain 325,000 new residents within seven years to make up for the lost taxes, said Christopher Meyer, a research analyst with the Maryland Center on Economic Policy.

“This radical slash and cap tax plan is going to cost the city ultimately more than $600 million per year and quadruple the city’s projected deficit,” Meyer asserted, going on to project the layoffs that would follow (400 firefighters, 120 emergency medical technicians) and the programs that would be eliminated or gutted: school nurses, Safe Streets, public libraries.

Coalition to oppose ballot measures that would lower city taxes and shrink the City Council after a kickoff event in Pigtown. (Fern Shen)

Coalition to oppose ballot measures that would lower property taxes and shrink the City Council, after a kickoff event at a Pigtown fire station. (Fern Shen)

Level Playing Field

Frederick challenged the idea that lowering taxes would only benefit the wealthy and out-of-town real estate speculators, arguing that it would create a level playing field “and help Black families way more than people like me.”

“If those low tax rates are good for the large politically connected developers – if those low tax rates stimulate people to build and therefore increase the population – aren’t they good for everybody?” he said, describing the opposition argument as “a power play.”

“The politicians like the current system because it gives them power to dole out the tax credits to their favorite developers. And the developers turn around and fund their campaigns,” he said. “The developers, actually, would rather not have to play those games.”

Two contributors to Renew Baltimore, Caves Valley Partners' Arsh Mirmiran and former Baltimore mayoral candidate, Mary Miller.

Two contributors to Renew Baltimore, Caves Valley Partners’ Arsh Mirmiran and former Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller.

Pitching Voters

With about five months to go before the November election, city election officials confirm that Smith’s council-shrinking measure has already collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

The tax cut effort, meanwhile, has more than 20,000 signatures, and backers plans to submit paperwork to the Election Board before the July 29 deadline. The measure needs 10,000 valid signatures to be placed on the November ballot.

Opponents, who have not yet set up a political action committee to receive funds for their campaign, said they are starting ground operation now.

“We’ll be reaching out to community associations and staffing early voting sites and election-day precincts and also doing door-to-door campaigning and social media,” said Max Socol, of Progressive Maryland.

If history is is any gauge, however, the “Not for sale” coalition faces a steep challenge:

Once placed on the ballot, a City Charter question is almost always approved by voters.

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