Last month Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced her intention to more than double the bottle tax that she raised last year from two cents to five cents, all in an effort to physically bolster many of the city’s crumbling public schools.
“We have reached a breaking point and it’s time to act now,” she said during a press conference when she officially announced the proposed increase.
Some would argue we reached a breaking point several years ago.
Nevertheless, the mayor and the supporters of her plan say it’s better now than never. The mayor’s office estimates the bottle tax hike from two to five cents would generate about $10 million a year and you combine that with money generated from the mayor’s, “three-part plan,” and you wind up with about $300 million worth of bonds to repair or replace schools.
Only thing is there are some estimates that put the cost of fully rehabbing city schools at upwards of $2.8 billion. So, if everything goes exactly as planned, it would take about 10 years to repair city schools. That is if everything goes exactly as planned, which of course it never does.
The reason the mayor raised the bottle tax two cents a year ago and wants to raise it an additional three cents is because the city doesn’t have any money; we’re broke, like just about every other big city and small town in America.
And those who balk at the bottle tax hike – the retailers, bar owners, et.al – say they will have no choice but to pass the added expense on to their customers, most of whom can afford it the least.
I talked with city leaders from West Baltimore to East Baltimore about the mayor’s plan, but the recurring theme was the mayor doesn’t have much choice.
“It’s deeper than the mayor,” said a veteran East Baltimore bar owner alluding to the nation’s ravaged economy. He reasoned that the five cent bottle tax would drive his added burden up to14 cents on a dollar, when you include the six percent sales tax and three percent liquor tax.
“That’s a hurt,” he said succinctly. Of course it is. But, who can argue against raising money to fix city schools, even if the mayor’s plan is simply, “a first step?”
I was visiting a former colleague at the high school where she now teaches English and I promise you the physical building looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1970’s; busted up furniture, no air conditioning, dilapidated windows. Something else hadn’t changed since the 70’s; all the kids were Black and most of them were poor.
“We’re going to make sure we use this money to make sure the facilities match the greatness of the kids that are there,” Rawlings-Blake said recently.
Of course the mayor’s message resonates – despite feeling slightly contrived to some – of course our children deserve better than they’re getting in many city public schools.
But, the question isn’t whether or not we should fix the schools. The question is how do we get the money? How do we get all of the money?
Further, how do we grow the city? How do we increase the quality of life for everybody? Perhaps, the more cynical question becomes who stays and who goes?
The property tax burden in the city is overwhelming, so you can’t raise that. So, you add some red light cameras, hike up parking fines and fees, toss in a bottle tax increase or two. Working people, poor people are getting squeezed all over America especially in the cities. And in the wake of a global economic meltdown that brought us to the brink of catastrophe, the biggest challenge mayors like Stephanie Rawlings-Blake face is raising revenue.
Someone told me recently there is a long-term plan to grow Baltimore’s population to about 800,000 people I guess over the next decade or so…good luck with that.
But, if and/or when we do reach that number, I bet the majority of those 800,000 won’t be squawking about a five cent bottle tax, because the majority of those people, working-class people, poor people will be long gone.
Now, that’s a hurt.