A Village Divided
Charles Village Residents Square Off Over the Future of its Benefits District
"My street never gets clean, my alley never gets clean," St. Paul Street resident Ridell Noble declared before some 35 people who had gathered for the evening's meeting of the Baltimore City Planning Commission. "I do not need to pay for what I can do for myself. . . . The experiment is done."
On the other side of the room, a handful of benefits-district opponents waited in line to tell the commissioners why they felt the city should dissolve the 8-year-old community-improvement organization, which was formed to help greater Charles Village fight growing "crime and grime."
"If I didn't love Charles Village and the people of Charles Village, I would not be working as hard as I am to get rid of the benefits district," testified Pamela Wilson, who lives on East 27th Street. She complained of vacant and boarded-up houses, trash problems, drugs, and crime that she says blighted her street all summer long: "I felt like I was living in a war zone."
This year the city must decide whether to give the benefits district, a special taxation district set up by the city in 1994, the nod to continue its work for another four years. The city ordinance that formed the benefits district stated that the mayor and City Council "shall review the effectiveness and desirability" of continuing its existence every four years. In 1998, it was reauthorized for another four years, but in 2002, when its ordinance came up for reauthorization again, it was only granted a one-year extension due to what City Council President Sheila Dixon said were "concerns about the management" and services provided by the benefits district. "I believe that amending the bill to shorten the reauthorization period to one year will allow the benefits district to attempt [to] fix those areas that need improvement," Dixon wrote in a letter to several anti-benefits-district homeowners in May 2002. With the one-year extension due to expire in June, the organization is fighting for the city to give it the nod for four more years when its contract is up. (Noble and several other benefits district opponents have filed suit to have the organization dissolved because they feel 2002's one-year extension was not legal. The suit is pending in the Court of Appeals.)
The Charles Village Community Benefits District is a 100-block, 14,000-resident area that includes four distinct neighborhoods: Charles Village, Abell, Old Goucher, and Harwood. Property owners in each of these neighborhoods pay an extra property tax--anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on property value--to fund extra security, trash collection, rat control, and sanitation services. The district was originally conceived shortly after the 1990 murder of David Gordon, a 25-year-old employee of engineering firm Whitman, Requardt and Associates. Gordon was shot to death in the company's parking lot at St. Paul and 24th streets. Administrative partners of the firm, which has since moved out of Charles Village and into offices at the Inner Harbor, pushed for the formation of the district as a way to stabilize the neighborhood.
"That murder is what spurred businesses to set this benefits district up," says Matthew Weinstein, a board member of both the benefits district and its non-profit arm, the Charles Village Community Foundation. "My experience has been that when I first got here, Charles Village was a great place, but it was a little bit scary. I had experiences where I was chased down the street in the middle of the night, or I saw kids breaking car windows or climbing up on roofs trying to break into houses. That's why I joined the Charles Village Civic Association and got involved in the Neighborhood Walkers Association."
Weinstein says that early on, it was clear to him there were "real limits" to what volunteer organizations could accomplish on their own, so neighbors were very supportive of the creation of a more formal entity charged with improving the quality of life for Charles Villagers.
In 1994, Charles Village residents voted 2 to 1 (approximately 1,000 people voted for, 500 against) in a city referendum to become the first residential neighborhood in Baltimore to impose a tax of 12 cents per $100 in assessed property value to support such a district. Today, the Charles Village Community Benefits District nets approximately $340,000 a year in revenue from the tax, in addition to hundreds of thousands more in grants and donations raised by the Charles Village Community Foundation.
"I think the neighborhood is doing much better now," Weinstein says. "The crime numbers are better, sanitation has improved, certainly property values are way up. And there's so many other things the benefits district has done. . . . We've doubled the budget with grants, so it's really made the taxpayers dollars' go farther."
But the benefits district's formation--and its self-proclaimed success--has not pleased everyone in Charles Village. From the very beginning, for example, neighborhood activist Grenville Whitman, who has lived in Charles Village since 1965, expressed concerns that the large, nonprofit institutions in the area--namely, Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital, and the Baltimore Museum of Art--would benefit most from the increased services even though they would not be required to pay for them. Eight years later, Whitman is a member of the Coalition Against Reauthorization of the Benefits District, and he still believes it unfairly taxes residents to offer services that mostly benefit larger institutions. He brought with him to the planning commission meeting oversized glossy photos of overflowing trash dumpsters on St. Paul Street, an old refrigerator and a chair dumped in an alley, trash lining the sidewalks of 26th Street. "There is a still a great deal of trash in Charles Village," Whitman told the commission. "These are the reality. The benefits district is not doing one of the most very basic things it promised to do."
Whitman and other members of the Coalition Against Reauthorization agree that Charles Village has seen some improvement over the years--but not necessarily due to the benefits district's efforts. Property values have skyrocketed because of the economy, they say. While benefits district supporters contend crime in the neighborhood has stabilized, detractors say the safety patrols run by the district stick mostly to the commercial corridors, rarely venturing into residential side streets. Members of the coalition say they don't want to pay taxes for services they're not receiving.
"We don't see the changes they are talking about," says Noble, a member of the Peabody Heights Resident Homeowners' Alliance. "In a lot of ways the community is better off than it was eight years ago, but in large part because of people in the community, not because of what the benefits district does. I pair up with a woman down the street and we keep the street clean, and the benefits district takes credit for that!"
Part of the problem, Noble says, is that in the eight years it's been around, nobody has required the benefits district to show proof of its accomplishments. It is not required to provide documentation of its accomplishments to the city or community; there are no audits of its successes and failures. As a result, the organization has become "an inside clique" that gets to pick and choose how to spend taxpayers' money.
"There's no documentation to prove anything," Noble says. "The board and its supporters say how wonderful they are and they're accomplishing wonderful things. That's their perception, and they pushed that on the [planning] commission. This perception needs to be documented."
And on at least that one point, the city's planning commission seems to agree with Noble, Whitman, Wilson, and other opponents of the district. In closing the Feb. 6 meeting, commission chairman Peter Auchincloss called for a motion to approve the reauthorization of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, and it was carried in a unanimous vote. But Auchincloss also recommend that the city require periodic, independent audits of its accomplishments.
The bill for Charles Village Community Benefits District's 2003 reauthorization will next go before the City Council's Urban Affairs Committee, after which it will be voted on by the entire council. Supporters of the organization, including Weinstein and Charles Village Civic Association President Beth Bullamore, say they are confident that the bill will be passed by the council. Bullamore says those who oppose the benefits district have opposed it from the get-go and are not likely to change their minds no matter how much things in the neighborhood improve. And she adds that things will continue to improve as soon as the benefits district can put the reauthorization issue behind it and get back to doing its real work: fighting urban blight in greater Charles Village.
"I see nothing to replace it," Bullamore says, noting that the area needs an umbrella under which all of its neighborhood and business associations can work together. "There's been no proposal of anything. One time somebody said to take the money and hire community organizers--well, community organizers have to be supervised, and you have to have programs for them to work on and everything else. Then we'd be right back where we were."
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