To the residents of cash-strapped Baltimore, the idea of taxing suburban commuters to the city has a certain ring of fairness.
After all, they reason, city taxpayers shouldn't bear all the brunt of maintaining the streets and providing services that commuters use. They shouldn't have to pay more than their share to take care of the region's unfortunate, who tend to seek city help.
William R. Brown Jr., Baltimore's finance director, said a preliminary estimate has found that a 1 percent income tax on nonresidents would raise about $80 million a year for the city. Brown said the estimate is based on charging about 320,000 commuters $1 a day for 50 weeks a year.
A commuter tax "is one way the city can create a more permanent financial base when the city's costs continue to rise and its population continues to drop," said the Rev. Donald Anthony, a Lutheran minister.
Anthony is part of a church-based organization in Baltimore that last week asked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to study commuter taxes and other revenue ideas to help put the city in a better fiscal posture.
"We know there are two points of view on this: Some would say commuters pay their way by eating at our lunch counters" and contributing indirectly through commercial taxes, Anthony said. "But we think it is an idea worth considering."
So does Schmoke, who directed his adminstration to consider the proposal.
Talk of a commuter tax will be listened to closely by many of the 8,726 Howard County residents who work in Baltimore, according to Howard County Council member Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4), who commutes to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
"Commuter taxes tend to drive away businesses and could draw retaliation by surrounding counties, or it could backfire in the legislature and the city could lose some of its special aid and special funding," Farragut said.
Clint Coleman, Schmoke's press secretary, said the mayor is aware that a commuter tax "can hinder as much as help" and can be a "counterproductive tool in raising revenue." Schmoke is yet to be convinced that a commuter tax is a viable alternative, Coleman said.
Cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Wilmington, Del., have approved some type of nonresident wage tax in recent years, according to Randy Arndt, of the National League of Cities.
Brown said $80 million would go a long way toward helping the city out of its financial crunch. The city's $1.8 billion operating budget grew by just 3 percent this year, less than the rate of inflation, Brown said. The difference forced the city to cut back on services.
Still, he said Baltimore officials are leery of a commuter tax. Some remember when the city tried to impose one in 1966 and quickly drew threats of retaliation from neighboring counties. The tax plan was dropped after the state legislature passed legislation allowing the city to adopt a local "piggyback" income tax, Brown said. "I'm not sure we want to stir up a controversy like that right now," he added.