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Mobtown Beat

Cash or Trash

Residents of Midtown Benefits District Weigh Bang Versus Buck

By David Morley | Posted 4/23/2003

Residents up in arms about a tax-funded benefits district set up to ostensibly help their neighborhood? It may sound like another round of contentious debate in Charles Village, but this time around, the furor lies closer to the heart of town.

For the past seven years, the Midtown Benefits District has been trying to make life better for residents of four city neighborhoods: Mount Vernon-Belvedere, Bolton Hill, Charles North, and Madison Park. Funded by a special tax on property owners in the area, the quasi-governmental body oversees paid Clean Teams and Safety Teams, among other efforts to make midtown a more pleasant place to live and work.

While most residents in Bolton Hill, Charles North, and Madison Park at least tacitly support Midtown's efforts, many property owners in Mount Vernon-Belvedere are stoking a debate about the organization. At an April 15 budget hearing at the Belvedere hotel, residents of Mount Vernon-Belvedere, the largest of the four neighborhoods in the benefits district, peppered Midtown acting director Charles Smith with questions about the organization's budget. Several neighborhood property owners said they are concerned that they pay the bulk of the taxes funding the organization--62 percent of Midtown's $735,952 2002-'03 budget--but have little or no say in its administration and questioned the value of the services they pay for.

According to a copy of the organization's 2002 budget handed out by Smith at the meeting, the Midtown staff consists of 13 full-time employees and one part-time worker, more than $393,000 of its yearly budget goes toward salaries, and an additional $87,000 is set aside for "employee welfare," including health benefits. Some, like 29-year resident and homeowner Pat Lebowitz, disagree with the personnel-heavy allocation of these funds. "I believe there is a better way to work the monies raised by this tax assessment," Lebowitz said at the budget hearing. "When you add salaries, benefits, and workers' compensation, you come up with over 70 percent of the entire budget--I have a problem with that."

Lebowitz said she does not mind paying the special tax but is concerned with the value of service she receives for her money. She said she is unimpressed by the work of the Safety Team in her neighborhood: "Last year [they] called the police on an 11-year-old Dachshund--it had like three teeth in its mouth." And though she does not approve of Midtown's administration and allocation of funds, as Lebowitz pointed out, she is compelled to pay for it because "if you don't pay these special taxes, they levy a lien against your house."

Smith countered that salaries cap out at $11 per hour for members of the Safe Team and $9 per hour for the Clean Team--"unfortunately, below the living wage." During the large snowstorm this winter, he added, the Midtown Benefits District Clean Team picked up the neighborhood' s trash: "We knew people would put their trash out and that the city wouldn't be able to get it."

To demonstrate the effectiveness of Midtown, Smith also handed out statistics on the work of the Clean and Safe teams. According to Midtown's figures, the Clean Team collected more than 102,000 bags of trash in 2002, much of which was swept up and bagged by members of the team; of the 102,000 bags, 43,263 bags came from Mount Vernon-Belvedere. In addition, more than 58 percent of the 8,438 "citizen assists" (e.g., a Midtown employee giving directions) occurred in Mount Vernon-Belvedere.

One neighborhood Mount Vernon-Belvedere property owner in attendance spoke up to suggest the Clean and Safety teams might accomplish more if they were not occupied with counting bags of trash or tallying numbers of citizen assists. Retorted Smith: "But we keep talking about bang for buck--we have to quantify the bags of trash to show you the bang for the buck."

Fortunately for Smith, not all voices at the budget hearing were against him. "I graciously pay the money because I see how the money is being applied," said J.R. Owens, a large rental-property owner in Mount Vernon-Belvedere and a co-founder of the Midtown Benefits District. Owens said the neighborhood looked much worse when he first started buying property in the area about 10 years ago, and that the "level of crime, drugs, and prostitution were rampant."

Owens also stressed the importance of Midtown's activities in Mount Vernon-Belvedere, a neighborhood with more renters than homeowners, in the midst of a cash-strapped city. "Politicians didn't see a big voting base here and passed us by," he said.

Though the discussion was highly charged, Smith said he felt the meeting had fostered "healthy dialogue." He was very happy with the turnout, noting that not many people attended the last several budget hearings.

Paul Warren, vice-president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Neighborhood Association, said afterwards that he shares Smith's sentiments about the meeting: "It's important to have open discussions about the services, because we need the services. If Midtown wasn't here, we'd have to invent it."

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