Tax Credits and Perks of Baltimore City Officials (January 8th, 2012)

One of the things that keeps coming over and over when I read about city politics in Baltimore is a false sense of entitlement by city officials, both elected and non-elected. For some reasons, they feel that they are entitled to tax breaks, perks and employment benefits that an average citizen on the city can only wish for.

TAKE HOME CARS

For example, currently Baltimore City’s Sheriff’s office is tagging vehicles belonging to the city’s public housing authority in order to sell them at an auction to pay for legal judgements. As pointed out by Adam Meister on his blog, some of the vehicles they are tagging are personal “take home” vehicles belonging to high level officials within the housing authority. This report dating back from 2009 says that at least 247 city employees have take home vehicle which they often taken on interstate trips, personal and paid for by the city (here is some more coverage from the Sun breaking down the numbers).

For a lot of people living the Baltimore-Washington Metro area, commuting to work is a fact of life. Many jobs are shifting away from downtown areas in major cities to places like Bethesda, Columbia, Fort Meade, Aberdeen, Annapolis Junction, etc. The public transportation system has not kept up with these changes and as the result lots of people commute to work, every day with their own private cars, public transportation or combination of there-of. And unlike public transportation and parking costs which may sometimes be tax-deductible via “cafeteria plans”, simply driving to work is not. and GUESS WHAT – we, private citizens, working at private companies or even federal contractors or agencies DO NOT GET FREE CARS!!! Why should city employees get them?

Another problem with city owned cars is that the expense is open ended. It is unclear if there are controls in place regarding the cost of gas, maintenance, personal vs. business use etc. It is also unclear if there are also no controls on whether new cars are bought or slightly used, leased, etc.

As an alternative, it would be trivial to calculate how much it costs to commute by using IRS’s standard formula of $0.55/mile and simply provide that money to the employees. That is what big companies do with some of the traveling employees, but only the ones that actually need to travel for their jobs, not commuting!

ILLEGAL TAX BREAKS

Another area which has been an area city officials have failed in is tax breaks. The current Mayor got caught when the media found out her husband and herself were collecting two Homestead Tax credits, while a married couple is only allowed one. At least they paid that one back.

However, the most egregious example of illegal tax breaks is the Conaway family. The father of the family, Frank M. Conaway, Sr., is the City’s Clerk of Circuit Court. The mother is Mary W. Conaway, the City’s Register of Wills. The daughter, Belinda Conaway / Washington, was a city councilwoman. And the son, Frank M. Conaway Jr., is a state delegate.

Belinda Conaway recently lost her re-election bid for city council after Adam Meister, a local blogger, found out that she apparently lived outside the city and collected the Homestead Tax credit there, which still has not been paid back. She sued the blogger for defamation for 21 million, the suit got dismissed but not before blowing the entire story wide open causing her defeat. The tax credit money has not been paid back.

Her father, then got in trouble when the Baltimore Sun found  in August 2011 that he collected a homestead credit on his rental property. However, not until December of 2011 when the Baltimore Sun ran an extensive series of stories on how much money the city loses in these credits, did the city’s finance department finally focused on this break and forced Frank to pay back over $3,000 in illegal tax breaks.

However, as per the August 2011 story in the Sun, Frank and Mary Conaway actually have a bigger problem. As the Mayor herself found out, you cannot claim the Homestead Credit on more than one property if you are a married couple. Both Frank and Mary claim credits on two different properties, totaling several thousand dollars going back several years. And none of that money has been paid back.

The thing that gets me the most is not issue of tax credits per se – it is really the total lack of apology to the city and its citizens. The entire mindset seems to be that unless they get caught, they are entitled to these tax breaks, and when they do get caught there are no apologies. Why can’t they simply apologize instead of grumbling about not knowing where to send the money?

PENSIONS

While on the topic of tax breaks and Belinda Conaway, it is worth to note that a lot of city employees get pensions. While I have no problems with granting pensions for physically demanding and dangerous jobs such as police and fire departments, why do disgraced former mayors and city council members get pensions – it is not like they can’t find jobs. Mayor Sheila Dixon who resigned because of a perjury charge is getting an $83,000 / year pension and she has a lobbying job also. Why?

What about people like secretaries, office workers, etc.? In the private industry pensions are being eliminated and I don’t see why the government can’t match that.

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