Dave Stahl, the owner of Pete’s Grille in Waverly, is fed up with the bewildering array of fees the city of Baltimore has charged his restaurant every year.
The city billed $393 for the three flower boxes. The outdoor lights cost $35. And the electric sign? Another $422 . All told, his business has paid more than $1,300 a year in so-called “minor privilege” fees, he said.
“Every year it ticks me off,” Stahl said.
Saying she’s sympathetic to such complaints, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday she is reducing or eliminating dozens of fees that have bothered small businesses for years — including charges for having outdoor security cameras, lights and bike racks. The fees, some of which have existed since the 1800s, are imposed for items the city considers in the public right of way. Business owners have long expressed concerns that the charges hurt their efforts to improve their establishments.
“Nothing can be more frustrating than excessive and burdensome fees, especially those that punish business owners from doing exactly what we encourage them to do, which is to invest in their business so they can grow,” Rawlings-Blake said. “Anyone who has ever opened a small business in Baltimore knows that for every step you take forward, excessive and burdensome fees can place you two steps backward.”
The cuts to the fees are the first in decades, city officials say.
For Stahl, the announcement was a welcome surprise.
“I’m not the biggest fan of our mayor, but I give her big kudos for this one,” he said. “This is fantastic news. It makes us feel good about being a business in Baltimore.”
Rawlings-Blake said the administration is immediately eliminating 23 of the city’s 107 minor privilege fees, charged on items that protrude from stores or are placed in the right of way. The eliminated fees include charges for wheelchair ramps, outdoor lights, security cameras and bicycle racks. Businesses with those amenities will have to pay a one-time $25 registration fee to the city.
The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, is expected to formally approve the changes Wednesday.
The mayor is also reducing 13 fees that have been assessed annually, changing them to one-time charges. These fees include several that apply to awnings and signs. That change takes effect in July. City officials point out that some other old East Coast cities, including New York, charge such fees.
The reductions are expected to trim the $2.7 million the city has collected annually from the fees by about $850,000, officials said. They said they plan to find savings elsewhere in the city budget to make up for the lost revenue. They argue that the cuts are worth it to help small businesses thrive.
“The return on investment will go much further than $850,000,” said Kevin Harris, the mayor’s spokesman. He said several city businesses will save more than $1,000 a year through the changes.
Rawlings-Blake announced the fee cuts in front of High Grounds Coffee Roasters in Highlandtown.
There, owner Michael Wood said he will save nearly $500 a year because of the changes — which will eliminate four of the five fees he is charged for his awning, two different kinds of lights and a bike rack. He will continue to pay for the outdoor seating he offers on the sidewalk.
“Any time I do not have to pay a fee or a tax, I can put it directly back into the business,” Wood said. “That means more employees, raises for the existing employees, and I can improve the quality of the coffee shop inside. … As a small business, we’re not operating with a very wide margin of extra funds.”
The city will continue to charge annual fees for dozens of items, including for the right to have tables and chairs, fences and trash bins on public property.
William H. Cole IV, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s development arm, called the cuts a “critical small business initiative.”
“We heard repeatedly from businesses who wanted to install bike racks, but they didn’t want to have to pay the annual fee,” he said.
The fees have been an issue of contention between the mayor and the City Council.
In August, Rawlings-Blake issued her first mayoral veto, of legislation sponsored by Councilman James B. Kraft aimed a reducing or eliminating such fees. Kraft’s bill would have given the council the power to reduce the fees if the change was approved by the voters in 2016.
The mayor said at the time that she was working on a plan to reform the fees. Kraft did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Steve Sharkey, the city’s director of general services, who helped lead a six-month study of the fees, said the cuts are designed to eliminate the most burdensome fees that least affected the public right of way.
“It was definitely time for a look at this program,” Sharkey said.
Baltimore’s ‘minor privilege’ fees
Fees being cut
•Bike rack: $70 annual fee cut to $25 one-time registration payment
•Reflector lamps: $35 annual fee cut to $25 one-time registration payment
•Awnings: $70 annual minimum charge reduced to one-time awning fee
Fees remaining the same
•Outdoor cafe seating: $337 minimum annually
•Fire escape: $141 one-time payment
•Newspaper boxes: $23 annually
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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