- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

BALTIMORE — A task force appointed by Mayor Sheila Dixon is recommending the expansion of legalized gambling, including slots and casinos, to help reduce Baltimore’s property tax, currently the highest in Maryland.

“We really felt in the overall scheme of things from the city’s perspective that full casino gambling would be much better for the city,” said Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and co-chairman of the task force.

“The city needs to have a strategy, and part of that strategy is to apply part of the gains that would come from either casino gambling or slots to meaningful property-tax reduction,” he said.

Maryland lawmakers, who have been struggling with whether to legalize slots for more than a decade, elected in November to let the voters decide through a statewide referendum. The referendum calls for slots machines at five locations, including in Baltimore. Table games are not part of the equation.

The referendum is expected to generate a heated battle over gambling, mirroring the fight that has raged in Annapolis for years.

But the group of 26 business and civic leaders embraced the idea. Table games bring in more tourists and more wealthy players — both of which could drive up revenue used to ease the property-tax rate, the group concluded.

The irony is that some critics of slots base their opposition on behalf of jurisdictions such as Baltimore, that have a concentration of poor people who would be adversely affected by gambling.

“Slots and casinos are the wrong direction for Baltimore — and the wrong direction for Maryland,” a spokeswoman for Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat and leader of the state’s slots opposition, said. “Any revenue that may be generated by this predatory industry will be more than offset by increases in crime, addiction and the destruction of entire communities.”

The mayor’s task force presented nine recommendations to lower the property-tax rate by about 11 percent.

Their recommendations include raising the income tax, lifting a cap on assessments and collecting more revenue through better commercial assessments. For the long run, the group proposed a local sales tax.

Baltimore’s tax rate is $2.268 per $100 of assessed value.

Using Detroit’s experience with casinos as a model, the committee estimated Baltimore could reap $45.9 million through casino gambling. With only slots, the report estimates the city could collect $32.8 million a year.

Mrs. Dixon, a Democrat, commissioned the task force in February. Although her administration has lobbied the legislature in favor of using slots to offset property taxes, she told the Baltimore Sun she would await public feedback before deciding where she stood.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico and is a longtime slots proponent, said other cities have expanded gambling to help balance municipal budgets and that it’s time Baltimore wised up.

“The reality is you want to attract homeowners to a community like Baltimore city, and you can’t when the property taxes are so high, [public] services are moderate and crime is high,” Mrs. Gladden said. “You need a crazy infusion of cash, and you get that by putting a slots venue on the I-95 corridor.”

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