A pair of Aberdeen city councilmen believe the path to the city’s fiscal salvation can be paved through a series of new taxes, fees and charges – and they just might be right.
Appearing Dec. 18 on ‘Aberdeen Happenings,’a local radio talk show hosted by Mark Schlottman on WAMD 970 AM, city councilmen Mike Hiob and Ron Kupferman specifically detailed plans for establishing parking fees at Ironbirds games to stave off accumulating city debt on the stadium, acquiring enabling legislation from the Maryland General Assembly to charge a fee on every night’s stay in every hotel and motel room in Aberdeen and installing a special taxing district along part of Beards Hill Road to help pay for an untangling of traffic congestion in the area.
But before launching their three-pronged (tax, fee, charge) approach to righting the city’s finances, the councilmen first spoke about the future of Aberdeen given its new leader – Mayor Mike Bennett, who defeated former mayor Fred Simmons in the November election.
“Do you see a new direction for the city with a new man at the forefront?” Schlottman asked.
“Well, so far I can’t say that there’s a new direction we’re heading into because there’s, I guess anybody that’s informed knows, a transition team that the mayor has implemented, if you will; 28 members or so,” Hiob replied.
Hiob’s tongue-in-cheek answer referred to the bulky 29-person transition team helmed by Bennett booster Art Helton, which has fanned out through City Hall in an effort to report to the mayor and city council in mid-January.
“At that point in time we’ll decide as a group if we’re heading in a new direction or staying the course,” Hiob said.
Bennett has been criticized for sending the transition team out to do the work many believe he should be doing himself — including meeting and greeting members of the Aberdeen Police Department and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 128. After ignoring several invitations for such a meeting, Bennett was finally expected to meet with the officers Friday.
Kupferman said about two weeks after receiving the transition team report, city elected officials and department heads will take part in a retreat to hash out Aberdeen’s issues and direction.
Regarding the now 7-year-old stadium, which has nearly bankrupt the city with debt and maintenance fees, Hiob said “it’s a contractual problem,” but added there is a possibility to work the matter out with Ripken’s Tufton Professional Baseball group.
“They can be if they decide to help us out,” Hiob added.
Kupferman detailed how the problem has been compounded because Nottingham Properties was expected by now to have built adjacent to Ripken Stadium a miniature shopping complex like its Avenue at White Marsh, which was anticipated to bring in around $700,000 in revenue to the city annually.
He also pointed out Aberdeen heads into 2008 knowing it must renegotiate its contract with Ripken Baseball to cover the next three years.
As perhaps a Band-Aid on the cash hemorrhage at Ripken Stadium, Kupferman and Hiob have suggested adding a $1.50 parking fee to the ticket prices for Ironbirds games. The minor league baseball team routinely sells out of all 6,000 tickets to every home game and next year will play 37 games in Aberdeen. Even though their proposal would generate only about one-third of a million dollars, they say it’s better than nothing.
Nearly everyone involved with the stadium, on both the city and baseball side, has been resolute against charging for parking, but the difference in Hiob and Kupferman’s plan comes in the collection of the fee. Rather than collecting money in the parking lot from vehicles as they enter for games, the charge would be added to ticket prices. Such an arrangement also eliminates a potential future conflict, as an agreement is already in place for surrounding commercial development to share parking spaces at Ripken Stadium.
“The dynamics of it aren’t workable so you have to add it to the ticket price,” Hiob said.
Another tax the duo has been angling for during each of the last several years is the ability to charge a fee on city hotel and motel rooms – a charge Hiob called simply a “pass-through tax” with no impact on Aberdeen or Harford County residents.
“This is the never-ending, sustainable source of revenue that we want, need and deserve in Harford County,” Hiob added.
Hiob detailed how Harford County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland without the authorization to implement a room tax – 22 of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City each have that ability. The State of Maryland itself charges a room tax and recently increased the charge from 5 percent up to 7.5 percent during the special session of the Maryland General Assembly, Hiob said.
Kupferman pointed out the reality that a simple 3 percent hotel tax (most of the other jurisdictions in Maryland charge from 5-8 percent) could mean tangible results for Aberdeen residents.
“If we can get 3 percent on a tax we can cut our city tax 10 cent,” he said.
“I’d love to see our taxes lowered in Aberdeen, but I don’t want to borrow money to do it,” Hiob added.
In order to have the ability to charge such a tax, Aberdeen must first get enabling legislation from the Maryland General Assembly before the mayor and city council can vote to implement it. As local legislation impacting only Harford County, the membership of the General Assembly defers to Harford County’s legislators on matters like the local hotel tax. As such, if Harford’s delegates and senators support it, it should move without incident through the General Assembly for approval. However, Aberdeen’s hotel tax request has been met with annual opposition from Harford County’s state senators.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs specifically has been a stalwart opponent of any tax increase in general, but especially Aberdeen’s request for a hotel tax. Last year, Hiob and Jacobs traded barbs when he accused her opposition of being based on the fact that the Hess family, owners of many local hotels, are regular contributors to her re-election campaign coffers. Jacobs called the accusation nonsense and later refused to meet with Hiob when an entourage of Aberdeen leaders ventured to Annapolis to discuss city matters with her.
The early word from Annapolis is that Jacobs will not budge on the hotel tax this year either, but the dynamics could change with Del. Barry Glassman soon ascending to the state senate seat being vacated by the resignation of Sen. Bob Hooper by the end of the year.
“The delegation end is not the problem as far as getting it. We had it on the delegation side. It’s the senate that keeps stifling it,” Hiob said.
Hiob said Aberdeen has more than 700 hotel and motel rooms, which usually have a 70-80 percent occupancy rate. He questioned why Harford County residents are being required to continually subsidize the hotel and motel rooms of out-of-towners.
“To imply that it could hurt our hotels is to imply that our accommodations are inferior and can’t compete on a level playing field,” Hiob added.
Special Taxing District
A final tax promoted by Hiob and Kupferman would be used to help the city untangle traffic issues on the network of roads it owns and must maintain at the intersection of Beards Hill Road and Route 22.
By installing a special taxing district along a portion of Beards Hill Road, which would require commercial businesses within its boundaries to pay an additional fee to Aberdeen, the city could move ahead with traffic improvements like punching Middelton Lane through behind Home Depot, getting an independent traffic survey of the area and perhaps constructing Aberdeen’s first roundabout.
The special taxing district would help recoup the costs of such endeavors from the Beards Hill area businesses which would directly benefit from a solution to the traffic woes.
But can a plan to levy three new taxes (or fees or charges, depending on what you like to call them) really help Aberdeen get its finances in order?
When the charges primarily target non-Aberdeen residents by hitting the out-of-towners who usually pack the stadium, I-95 travelers who pull off for a night stay in Aberdeen and a finite group of businesses who are clamoring for road improvements anyway – I’d say it’s a good start.