Disregarding the mayor’s request to give her tax collection reforms “a chance to work first,” the City Council tonight called for an audit of the Finance Department and possible “privatization” of tax collections as a way to put an end to “the chronic and costly tax errors plaguing Baltimore.”
The measures, introduced by Councilman Carl Stokes, will now go before the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which he chairs, for hearings.
The Council’s rare rebuff of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reflects growing anger by constituents about erroneous tax bills.
“I don’t know if we need to privatize. I do know we need people in that office that know how to add and subtract,” said Councilman James B. Kraft.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young echoed statements by Stokes, published today in The Brew, that the city is losing millions of dollars because of underbillings of property taxes, especially “EZ” (Enterprise Zone) tax credits for large commercial properties.
“We are losing a lot and will continue [to do so] until Finance actually does what it is supposed to do,” Young said during a debate over the measures.
Mayor’s Reforms Ignored
No Council member came forward to defend the administration or speak favorably of what the mayor’s staff billed as “major new reforms in tax collections” announced at a news conference this morning at City Hall.
In a prepared statement, Rawlings-Blake said her administration “will not rest” until errors and underbillings are corrected, and said the path toward improvements lay in “leveraging technology” to better process tax bills.
“We should let the improvements that have been put in place a chance to work first,” she stated, alluding to the resolutions that were coming before the Council tonight.
“We can look for areas where additional improvements can be made,” the mayor continued. “This is an issue of fairness. That’s something that we can all agree on. Working together with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, I know, that we can continue to move forward to make critical improvements that the citizens of Baltimore deserve.”
The mayor did not address privatization as an option before she left the press conference without taking questions.
Harry Black, the finance director, told reporters that the tax collection function “is not something that can be delegated out.” He made it clear he was opposed to an audit of his department, claiming that many of the problems cited by Stokes have been corrected.
“We believe the bills sent out July 1 [of this year] are error-free,” he said. “We are working retroactively with previous errors.”
Reducing “Hands” in the Process
Asking to characterize the billing errors, Black said, “One of the things we’ve come to understand, in terms of the root-cause analysis of the errors, is of too many hands actually touching the process. So the idea is to eliminate as many hands as possible by introducing automation.”
Asked if he was implying that tax personnel were improperly altering tax assessments or billings, Black said this was not the case. Rather, he said he was addressing inadequate coordination between his department and state tax assessors.
Black also claimed that figuring out EZ and other tax credits can be difficult.
“The assessment process for these credits is a very dynamic process,” he told reporters. “This is not one assessment that takes place. There can be a primary basic assessment done at one point of time and changes made to that assessment over time, and that information may not have been relayed to the city. Therefore, the bills going out are not reflective of a true and accurate view of the tax credit account.”
City Councilman William H. Cole IV, speaking tonight at the Council, took a different viewpoint. “It doesn’t take rocket science to fix these problems. It takes man hours,” he said.