The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Baltimore:
A City in Decay that CAN Be Rebuilt

May 9, 2016

... from a talk given at a Spark public meeting in Baltimore, MD on March 19, 2016.

Today I want to raise how the people of Baltimore are harmed by the falling apart of all kinds of infrastructure. I want to bring up lead paint poisoning; the still damaged water and sewage system; and the crumbling of city roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Yet the resources exist, there is enough wealth in Baltimore to begin to resolve some of these problems, although these issues are not what current political leaders are addressing in this campaign season.

Lead Paint Harms Youngest

At a recent meeting the Baltimore City health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, said some 50,000 young children remain at risk of lead paint poisoning. When very young children eat lead paint chips, they are at risk of damage to their growth and development, especially of their brains and nervous systems. This damage from lead poisoning can never be undone.

The health commissioner said Baltimore City has very few inspectors to check up on the problem and in fact, checking only gets done AFTER someone suspects a child has been poisoned – which is way too late. She said Baltimore City lacked the money to have enough inspectors. Not only is there an apparent lack of funds for inspections, the whole system has broken down in these cases. No one is checking up that repairs are done. Yet, lead paint was banned from use in homes built after 1978. And you cannot buy or sell a home in Baltimore today without a privately paid inspector stating there is no lead paint that hasn’t been treated or removed.

The problem of lead causing dangerous illness is not new. Lead has been known to be deadly to humans for centuries. In the 1800s in England, porcelain dishes were widely sold. Even at that time, factory inspectors could see a high rate of death for workers who painted the dishes with lead paint. But even so, the paint industry pushed lead paint into the 20th century. (And, we would later see the same thing with the auto industry. Both insisted for many decades that lead added to gasoline or paint was NOT a health hazard when they knew it was.)

Although the number of cases of lead poisoning began to fall after the 1980s, the problem remains. Hundreds of young children in Maryland are still diagnosed with lead paint poisoning each year, 129 in Baltimore last year.

Baltimore City banned the use of lead paint in 1950, that is, 28 years before the federal government outlawed it. But in older homes, that lead paint remained and poisoned thousands of young children, especially in poorer homes or apartments that had flaking paint chips.

The state of Maryland also passed laws requiring landlords to remove lead-based paint that is peeling or flaking. But the law is largely self-enforced; no one is going to check that landlords are actually having their properties inspected or doing the removal work needed. In fact, state auditors themselves have criticized the Maryland Department of the Environment for not keeping its rental lists up to date. But the fine for not registering is $90, so thousands of landlords don’t bother to register. And the Maryland Department of the Environment only has 12 inspectors to check up on 400,000 rental units all across the state.

The city, and the state, both need a program – the same program, with the same information so cases don’t “slip through the cracks” while the city and state officials blame each other. What’s needed is a program that hires and trains inspectors and takes those landlords who are renting for profit to court over lead paint violations.

Drinking Water and Sewage

The water system and sewage system in Baltimore remain a mess – even now 13 years after the city of Baltimore signed a consent decree. Sewage had been going into the Baltimore water system and pipes were aging and breaking (more than 1,000 breaks per year).

When sewage contaminates the water people use for drinking, cooking or bathing, their lives are actually cut short. It was clear centuries ago that human populations grew and lived longer when the water they used was kept from coming into contact with sewage.

Because sewage in water is a real health danger, Baltimore City, and many other jurisdictions, were forced to agree to fix the problems, an agreement made with the federal government – called a consent decree.

This is from the April 2002 agreement, “Baltimore has agreed to undertake a comprehensive, system-wide program that will bring the city into long-term compliance with the Clean Water Act. This will end the years of chronic discharges of millions of gallons of raw sewage into city streets and local waterways, including the Patapsco River and other tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore has agreed to complete the construction work associated with increasing the capacity of its collection system and eliminating physical overflow structures by June 2007 and complete an extensive sewer upgrade by 2016. Complete implementation of this system-wide program will cost approximately $940 million over the 14-year life of the agreement.…”

To repair all those pipes and the water system would have required the city to put 70 million dollars into the project each year. What did city officials do? The city’s budgets and web sites are not easy to use, they are not transparent. No one can say where all the money goes. But one thing is obvious: the system is not repaired!

Raw sewage CONTINUES to go into the waterways around Baltimore. In a recent heavy rain storm, twelve million gallons were deliberately released into the Jones Falls, which runs through the city. Thousands more gallons of contaminated water continue to reach the inner harbor every year. The streams and Fallsway drain into the waters leading to the Chesapeake Bay, in a way that puts everyone at risk for bacteria and other serious contaminants.

Despite that agreement, Baltimore is not even halfway through the process of fixing all the pipes. And what we know is that over that same time period our water bills have more than doubled.

The one thing the city got around to doing last year was sending notices to thousands of people about their water bills being late. People faced not only water shut-offs but possible loss of their homes, due to unpaid water bills. Meanwhile, millions of bills remained unpaid from businesses. The highest one, never collected, was seven million dollars from Bethlehem Steel, which closed and later was taken over as RG Steel. Still those water bills are not paid.

Not Just Bumps in the Roads

Whether you drive or take the bus, you already know how much road work desperately needs doing in Baltimore City. People who want and need to work could be hired and trained to fix roads. In a 2011 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers surveyed infrastructure all over the country. They said Maryland’s infrastructure and Baltimore’s water system were mediocre at best.

Or take the railroad tunnels under the city – some more than 100 years old, belonging to the Chessie rail system.

When 26th Street collapsed over the railroad tunnel two years ago, there was fortunately no injury to human beings. But city officials had ignored the residents of 26th Street. Residents had complained that the street surface showed serious problems. Could there be other places like 26th Street?

Now Chessie officials want the city to allow the railroad to dig a deeper, larger tunnel that would let more trains per hour go faster. But the proposals would disrupt many neighborhoods, even throwing some people and businesses out of their buildings.

Where Is the Money?

But you ask where is the money? And there IS money. You cannot travel around the city and not see new condos, new townhouses, new apartments, new structures – and that is before they start putting up the buildings at Harbor Point or at Port Covington.

Yet Baltimore has less than a quarter of the assessable property on which taxes are collected, compared to a wealthy county like Montgomery. Baltimore has far less property assessed for taxes and the tax rate on property is twice as high in Baltimore City as it is anywhere else in the state of Maryland.

There is new building in Baltimore. But while the new property appears to be adding wealth to the city, it is NOT adding TAXES to the city budget. How can that be?

For 15 years Baltimore has been giving tax deals to those who want to put up new property or rehabilitate property – at least in some areas. Some of the special deals are called TIFs, which stands for tax increment financing and others are called PILOTS, or payments in lieu of taxes. In either case, these deals mean that for 10 years, sometimes longer, the new properties don’t pay the regular property tax rates. Under most of these tax breaks, 80% of the property taxes are forgiven for five years, then the amount gradually decreases so that the property owners then begin to pay more taxes, although not the full amount for 10 years.

Yes, anyone can try to read up on TIFs and PILOTs. But when the city council did a study on them five years ago, since the city council has to approve them, one recommendation was for more transparency. You see, when you look at the information provided, you just scratch your head. Tax money is what goes to the Baltimore Development Corporation, and then it makes the deals behind closed doors.

City officials claim TIFs and PILOTs benefit the city treasury. But if that were true, they would show what money was coming in, they would even brag about it.

What TIFs and PILOTs show is a form of blackmail. Corporate heads and their development arms and real estate interests and their financial backers can and do demand that the city give them deals – or else they claim they will go elsewhere. Indeed, every city and state is pitted against every other city and state to give special deals.

I would remind Baltimore residents that Camden Yards and Ravens stadiums were not built by the owners of those teams. You don’t hear city officials bragging about how wealthy all those ticket sales are making the city. The information can hardly ever be found.

And last year city taxes went to pay part of a 300-million-dollar deal for the Hilton hotel downtown (Hilton is the largest hotel chain in the world). Clearly that deal did not benefit the city.

Now we have Kevin Plank’s development project demanding half a billion or so from the city of Baltimore and another half million from the state of Maryland to get their Port Covington project going.

Baltimore is a city claiming that it doesn’t have money to eradicate lead paint in housing, that it cannot rehabilitate or pull down thousands of vacant homes, where the infrastructure needs millions of dollars of work – and I haven’t even mentioned the failing school system.

There are simple answers: People want to work and work needs to be done. There are plenty of people looking for work. The unemployment rate in Baltimore is twice as high as in the rest of Maryland. One in three young black men are unemployed, and so are at least one in every ten young white men unemployed.

To get money for the many services we need, we will have to fight to get that money. We will need the officials of the city to pay attention to the needs of residents, so that TIFs or PILOTs or other special funds are used for the needs of the population – not given to the politically connected millionaires and billionaires like Plank or Biscotti (owner of the NFL Ravens).

We need to help organize a fight for what it would take to improve the situation of Baltimore’s working people and poor people.