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Keeping tabs on the City Council's activities so you don't have to

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/13/2008

On the Agenda for Feb. 5

08-0044--Zoning Variances--Information Required This bill would require those seeking a zoning variance to provide a sealed drawing of the surrounding property and elevations with their request.

Public Interest Grade: C-, marked down for lateness This addresses the problem of developers who expand rowhouses far out of scale with the surrounding community. Neighborhood groups have long complained about huge third stories and long, tall rear additions that block sunlight and access to sky. The Zoning Board of Appeals allowed these additions based on drawings--often misleading, City Paper has found--of only the building in question. Now, just as hundreds of those remodeled houses are languishing for sale on a sagging market, the council is moving to slow down this problem by requiring developers to put their plans in a neighborhood context.

08-0009R--Informational Hearing--Police Department Shortages and Suspensions Calls for a hearing, now scheduled for March 18 at 4:15 p.m. in the council chambers, in which Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld is invited to explain the department's policies on suspension and discipline, and to divulge how many police officers are currently suspended with pay.

Public Interest Grade: A This issue has been hidden in part because no one involved--the brass, the union, the politicians, or the police rank and file--thinks it reflects well on them. Police union President Paul Blair says the police officer's bill of rights allows the agency to suspend an officer for up to a year if no criminal charges are pending. But if criminal charges are pending, then the officer can remain under suspension until a prosecutor signs a letter saying he has no interest in prosecuting the case. Many officers--Blair says he doesn't know the number--are languishing on desk duty, at full pay, for want of that letter. "If officers are guilty, investigate and take appropriate action," he says. "But if they're not guilty, then don't make them hang around for more than a year." Councilman Jack Young (D-12th District), who sponsored the resolution, seconds Blair's thoughts. "I just wanted to find out how it's affecting manpower on the street," Young says.

08-0016R; 08-0007R--16R Calls for support of state legislation that would repeal a new law that requires beneficiaries of the Homestead Tax Credit to reapply; 7R requests an informational hearing on the existing law.

Public Interest Grade: B- The Homestead Tax Credit caps a resident's property tax increase to 4 percent of the increase in the home's reassessed value--keeping homes affordable for longtime residents who didn't ask for or benefit from the housing bubble. This year, along with eye-popping tax reassessment notices, residents also got a form requesting that they apply for the tax credit. "In my district a lot of people, especially elderly people, never saw the application," says Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th), who sponsored both resolutions. "A lot of them don't know how to fill it out." She says the law says homeowners have until 2012 to apply to retain their tax credit, but that a clerk at the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) told her over the phone to get it done by April of this year. OK, there are always blameless sweet old couples befuddled by new regulations, but there are also thousands of cheaters who own multiple houses and claim them all as their "primary residence." They should be easy to find with a computer search: Compile all the homestead tax credit properties in a database and arrange by last name, then first name. Then send letters to all the matches and make them reapply; meantime, cut off anyone with three or more "primary residences." Why hasn't SDAT done this as a matter of routine? And why isn't the council calling for that?

City Council Quote Of The Week

"The message we should send is don't throw out the baby with the dirty water--find a better way." --Councilwoman Rikki Spector (D-5th), criticizing council resolution 08-0016R.

City Council Fact Of The Week

The hearing on the proposed ban on trans fats (08-0034) is scheduled for March 4.

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Feb. 25 at 5 p.m.

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