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by Fern Shen5:53 pmJul 9, 20240

City election director says Baltimore property tax cut measure can’t be on November ballot

Leaders of the group behind the tax referendum drive, Renew Baltimore, say they will ask a judge to review the director’s decision

Above: Signatures to place a property tax reduction proposal on the November ballot, outside Baltimore City Hall last month. (@realmannynation)

Proponents of a ballot measure to cut Baltimore’s property tax rate in half say the city’s top election official was wrong to reject their proposal for inclusion on the November ballot and vowed to challenge his decision in court.

Board of Elections Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. today sent a letter announcing his decision to the attorney for the tax cut group, Renew Baltimore.

In it, Jones argued that only elected city officials can set the property tax rate.

“Maryland’s highest court has held that under this rule, a petition-initiated charter amendment may not set a specific property tax rate,” Jones wrote.

“Accordingly, I cannot certify the charter amendment for inclusion on the ballot at the upcoming general election,” he continued.

A member of Renew’s Advisory Committee, real estate broker Ben Frederick III, said the group will seek a judicial review of Jones’ decision.

“We disagree with the elections director,” Frederick said. “His decision is wrong, and it goes against the will of 23,542 people.”

Frederick was referring to the signatures his group has collected and submitted to the Board of Elections last month – far in excess of the 10,000 valid signatures of city residents needed to appear on the ballot.

American Federation of Teachers-Maryland member Chris Patterson speaks out against efforts to get voters to approve a property tax cut initiative in November. (Fern Shen)

American Federation of Teachers-Maryland member Chris Patterson speaks out against efforts to get voters to approve a property tax cut initiative in November. (Fern Shen)

Opposed by Unions, Progressives

Jones’ ruling ratchets up the conflict over a proposal that was already drawing high-profile pushback.

Mayor Brandon Scott and Councilman Zeke Cohen, in line to become City Council President in November, have come out strongly against the Renew Baltimore plan.

They, along with other city electeds, progressive activists and labor group have banded together in the “Baltimore City Not For Sale Coalition.” Last month, the group launched a campaign to defeat the proposal, which they said would trigger disastrous cuts to government services and disproportionately hurt Black and low-income residents.

Backed by big bucks, measures to slash taxes and shrink the City Council draw opposition (6/12/24)

Renew’s backers argue that city residents are already hurting as a result of tax rates that far exceed those of surrounding jurisdictions and discourage investment, development and population influx.

If enacted, Renew Baltimore’s proposal would reduce the tax rate from 2.248% to 1.2% over the next seven years.

Pointing to other Maryland jurisdictions that have capped local tax rates, Frederick said the group believes it can successfully defend against the legal challenge.

The Not For Sale Coalition, meanwhile, applauded Jones for barring the amendment from the ballot.

“This determination from the Baltimore City Board of Elections confirms what advocates, legal experts and residents have been contending – the Renew Baltimore proposal is unconstitutional and should not appear on the Baltimore ballot in November or at any other time,” said Courtney Jenkins, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO on behalf of the coalition.

“The measure was a simple-minded fantasy, created to benefit the very wealthiest at the expense of the rest of us,” Jenkins said in an emailed statement.

“If implemented,” he continued, “city residents would have suffered from having fewer firefighters and EMS workers, the closure of multiple fire stations, the elimination of street and alley cleaning, and the cancellation of all pre- and post-natal maternal health and Healthy Homes lead exposure visits, among other cuts.”

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