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Baltimore City Council looks for more transparency in development tax incentives

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, shown at an earlier meeting, says the city needs to do a better job of providing comprehensive and easily accessible information showing which tax breaks have been granted to whom. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, shown at an earlier meeting, says the city needs to do a better job of providing comprehensive and easily accessible information showing which tax breaks have been granted to whom. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Members of the Baltimore City Council made a push for greater transparency in tracking how well development tax incentives work as part of a briefing on the use of such incentives Thursday morning.

Tax increment financing (TIF) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) incentives typically come with promises of jobs and, ultimately, more revenue for the city as part of developing areas in targeted neighborhoods.

But it can be hard for the public to track these projects. Information is often scattered, hard to find, or both.

“Why can’t we just have all that information in one spot?” asked Councilman Bill Henry, who sponsored a resolution leading to a hearing on the incentives Thursday. He argued that city agencies have access to most of the information anyway and putting it all on one website would be, “just collating information.”

Henry was also worried by statements from city agency heads that said they did not have the resources to create such a website.

“I am a more than a little concerned by the statement that we don’t have the resources to put up our own website about the progress of these claims currently,” he said. “I find it difficult to believe that that information isn’t already in-house.”

While specifics about how the tax incentives have been spent and how well they have met their goals can be difficult to find in one place, the city’s Department of Finance did provide numbers on the city’s current TIF debt load.

According to the numbers provided by Steve Kraus, the deputy director of finance, the city currently has nearly $200 million in debt, as of June, distributed among nine TIF projects. It also has $773.5 million of debt to be issued across four projects, including $660 million for the Port Covington redevelopment.

Given the amount of money being spent, Henry said he wanted to see more public input on tax incentives throughout the process, through the city council. Currently, the council can have input after a tax incentive project has already gone through some work with executive agencies.

“I do want to continue to press for the idea of formally including the council earlier in the process for TIFs and PILOTs,” he said.

Whenever a project is being considered, Henry said, the chair of the council’s economic development committee should be notified and a public hearing should be held.

Henry said he was pleased with the information that came out of the hearing, which he described as “a good start.” But he wants to see the city begin to develop a more encompassing vision for development as it moves forward. That includes clearly delineating where the city wants to encourage people to develop.

Some of that vision should look beyond downtown and the waterfront areas of the city, he said.

“We need to articulate a real development vision for the city,” he said. “We need to be more thoughtful in how we do this.”

With significant turnover on the city council over the past election cycle, Henry also saw Thursday’s hearing as a chance to provide new council members with an overview of the tax incentive system the city currently deploys.

An older member of the council said she hopes these new members take on the task of looking into the system and how it works in the city.

“I hope that this new council, which has so much hope for the future, will take this on,” said Mary Pat Clarke.


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