How Are We Supposed To Know How To Vote on Local Bond Issues?

by Lynda Lambert

Beware Bond Language that includes words like "develop," "renovate," or "improve." Find out what this really means before awarding a "yes" vote.
On November 2nd, the City will be asking its citizens to approve $120 million in loans through the issuance of City Bonds.

When the City issues a bond, that means that it's going to sell shares in a particular project to raise money for the project. The person who buys the bond expects to be paid back for his investment through dividends as well as, after a time, cashing in the bond. When we vote for a bond, it means that we are agreeing to underwrite that bond; we do, after all, underwrite the City.

By affecting the services the City provides, the buildings the City owns, and the development the City wants to see take place, a "yes" or a "no" on Bond issues will affect our taxes, our fees, and our lives for some years to come.

I know too many people who just pull down "yes" for all the bond issues without reading them, without understanding them, without realizing that these, more than anything else we vote for, affect us on a daily basis.

A good resource to read the complete Bond requests is at the League of Women Voters website. Understanding what you read there requires that you understand the way governments obscure what they mean by what they say. "Underutilized properties," for instance, in development jargon means properties in which people live and/or are currently doing business, but which are in the way of a private development.

"Development" is another obscure term that seems straightforward. Most of us want development; it means jobs; it means a broader tax base--we think.

But it doesn't. Other than short-term construction jobs, many of the jobs that spring from an office building, as example, come from the people who rent the office space. And taxes? Most of the development going on in the City right now is being given tax write-offs, tax reductions, or in some case up to 25 years of existence tax-free. Wherever a government document reads "tax incentives," that what is meant.

"Renovate" which literally means "make new," does not mean restore or repair. It could mean tearing out or gutting.

"Improvement" is also a difficult word. A lot of the $120 million is wanted for improvements to various buildings. What is an improvement? When I think improvement, I think new roof or improved plumbing. But improvement can mean anything; it's in the eye of the beholder.

A lot of bond issues also carry what I call "tagalongs." Like "pork" attached at the last minute to a congressional bill, they may have nothing to do with the particular issue of the bond, or they may be giving power to do things we don't want given.

Below are my takes on the Baltimore City bond issues in this year's election.

Question F: School Loan. We are asked to approve a $34 million loan to the City Schools to renovate and improve school facilities. Of course, we want to approve this. However, I have to ask: Isn't $34 million exactly the amount that the City Schools "misplaced" last year and the Mayor "borrowed" from the general fund to make up the schools' short fall? If we approve this $34 million loan, where exactly is the money going? If you were a banker--which essentially you are when you approve a bond--would you consider Baltimore City Schools as having a good credit rating? Think about it.

Question G: Community Development Loan to "revitalize and stabilize neighborhoods and provide decent, affordable housing for our citizens...." This includes such good things as money to help Main Street and upgrade Youth Centers and Homeless Shelters. Of course we want to say "yes" to this. Let me get my checkbook; I'll even put in a little extra! However, there's a tagalong: money to "demolish structures," "acquire property and relocate households... for City development." I could be overreacting, but what this means to me is that, once the City has snuck through its Eminent Domain law--which it is in the process of doing piecemeal--we're lending the City $33.5 million it will need to throw us out of our homes or tear down our houses once they've been taken and given to some private developer.

Question G also mentions funding neighborhood "improvements."

Question H: Economic Development Loan "to retain and attract jobs in the City and increase City tax revenues; provide funds for economic development projects." The explanation mentions improvements to buildings that house Arts programs like School 33, The Bromo Tower, and The Patterson Theatre. But it also wants money for the "Harbor Master Plan" and the "Comprehensive Master Plan." Do you know what these plans include? I didn't, until looked them up on the web. (If you'd like to do the same, check out the links at the end of this column.) Six million of the close to $30 million requested in Question H will fund the "East Baltimore Development Initiative," which includes 300 units of new residential construction and 450,000 sq. ft. of commercial space and 800 parking spaces. Where would this be going? A map was unavailable on the sites I consulted. And will these be free parking or paid parking? Suburban parking that stretches for acres--or City parking that builds up? We need more specifics--or at least, I do. We cannot assume that these projects will go on already vacant land or that they'll tear down an old warehouse or something. Not anymore, as the people who used to live at the corner of Charles and 33rd Streets in Charles Village can attest, or those who used to reside in 29 Victorian homes that now constitute a Giant store parking lot.

Question I: Public Buildings Loan to fund repairs on municipal buildings. This $7.5 million request does not seem to have any hidden clauses.

Question J: Recreation & Parks Loan is $6.9 million for improvements to parks and playgrounds. Again, this seems to be straightforward; and it benefits our day-to day-living.

Question K: Enoch Pratt Free Library Loan of $2.6 million to improve computer labs, handicapped access and building systems. Since the Pratt became a City service and began closing down our neighborhood libraries in favor of "regional" libraries, I don't have the respect for the institution that I once had. Still, it's the only library we have and there doesn't seem to be any convoluted language that actually means "close or tear down libraries," as there was the last time.

Question L: National Aquarium in Baltimore Loan of $1.5 million to finish renovation and allow it to expand to Piers 3 and 4. We well might wonder why we're asked to be responsible for the national Aquarium, but it turns out the "national" is an honorific bestowed on the project. The State and City hold the bag for it. But still--if we keep expanding the place, soon we won't even be able to see the water unless we're on the deck of the Constellation.

Question M: Health Care for the Homeless Loan of $1.3 million to "Construct a new enlarged facility to be located near the Fallsway, east of downtown." The fact that I haven't had any health insurance since 1981 makes me envy whatever the homeless get already, but I am not against their being helped. On the other hand, stand at Fayette and the Fallsway and look around. What building is going to be torn down so that they can construct this "new enlarged facility"? The only place that has an empty lot is two blocks off President Street to the East, in or near the erstwhile Industrial Park. I'll bet you that's not where it's going.

Question N: B&O Railroad Loan to restore parts of the B&O Museum for $1 million. It seems straightforward.

Question O: Maryland Science Center Loan of $700,000 for "renovations to the plaza and exterior improvements." Again, I ask: Why are Baltimore citizens asked to front a loan for the Maryland Science Center. Shouldn't Maryland be doing that? I mean, it's still "us," but Maryland is a bigger "us" than Baltimore alone. And there's that "improvement" word again.

Question P: Walters Art Museum loan of $500,000 and Question Q: Baltimore Museum of Art loan of $500,000. The Walters wants to build a new facility on the parking lot across Cathedral Street. As for the BMA, it wants to conserve and expand an exhibition. These institutions are privately managed non-profits, but they've become "ours" by default. Too bad they can't just go to banks or venture capitalists to get loans.

We have become the bank. We, the people of Baltimore are guaranteeing these loans. So, pick and choose carefully. It's your money.

Lynda Lambert, an English teacher and freelance writer, writes frequently for this newspaper.

For information on the Harbor Master Plan, go to this page; for information on the East Baltimore and West Side Initiatives, go here.

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This story was published on October 25, 2004.