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

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/4/2009

Bill 09-0271 Tobacco Products--Unpackaged Cigarettes or Cigars. This bill would add cheap little cigars to the existing prohibition on selling cigarettes one at a time. The idea is to keep kids from buying these by making them more expensive.

The read: Little cigars, often fruit-flavored and sold in smaller packs, are taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes. At least 40 states are trying to close the loophole that allows the big tobacco companies to sell products such as Black and Milds, Winchesters, and Swisher Sweets more cheaply than cigarettes. This is part of that effort. But in the city, the existing law against single-cigarette sales (it's a misdemeanor carrying up to a $1,000 fine) is honored mostly in the breach. So-called "loose ones" are hawked all over Baltimore on street corners and in tiny, usually unregistered, stores. Despite the bill's characterization by Councilman Robert Curran (3rd District) as "a great effort to increase the public health of the citizens of Baltimore," the new prohibition can be expected to drive the little-cigar market more firmly into these precincts.

Bill 09-0273 Loading Zones--Fee for Maintaining. Would implement a fee to downtown businesses that have loading zones.

The read: Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (7th District) apparently wants more parking downtown, and sees the loading zones outside certain businesses as impinging on this. "We want to be fair," Conaway says. She doesn't want to overtax city businesses, but (as she told the council during the meeting) a nearby drug store has three potential parking spaces in front taken up by a loading zone.

Bill 09-0274 Unsafe Structures--Enforcement by Citation. Would fine owners of "unsafe structures" $1,000.

The read: "We know we're plagued with vacant structures," says Conaway, adding that, currently, the city can mandate that a property owner stabilize an unsafe building but can do very little else. According to the building code, buildings must be safe for human habitation and, if not, boarded and returned to safe condition within 30 days. There is no fine specified in that part of the code, but the building official can correct the condition and charge the owner by placing a lien on the property. The building official can also order demolition--at the owner's expense--of any unsafe structure. The problem has been that, in practice, this is often not done until after it collapses. The city seldom recoups its costs on these structures.

City Council Quote of the Week

"No one wants to pay for something that they've been getting for free." --Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, on introducing a bill that would charge stores a fee for their loading zones.

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Feb. 9 at 5 p.m.

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