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Baltimore City Council Introduces Bill To Tax E-Cigarettes

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

The Baltimore City Council held a virtual meeting Monday night, where they passed a major tax sale bill and introduced a measure to tax electronic smoking devices. WYPR’s Nathan Sterner and Emily Sullivan walk us through the bills.

NATHAN STERNER: Emily, let’s start with what was introduced last night.


EMILY SULLIVAN: Let’s rewind to the spring...as the coronavirus pandemic was heating up and many Baltimoreans were spending more time outside than usual, to get out of the house. During that time, councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of North Baltimore says her constituents were beginning to notice something they hadn’t really before: the controversial spy plane, flown by Baltimore Police and funded by wealthy Texans, and stocked with cameras that record everything on the ground within its range.

Clarke got a ton of complaints to her office about its constant droning noise and the messageshe says it sends to some constituents -- that the police department views itself as an occupying force in Baltimore.

CLARKE: I have spent a lot of this summer, fall fielding complaints from residents in a variety of neighborhoods across the 14th District about the noise and the constant presence.

So last night, Clarke introduced a resolution that calls on the Police Commissioner Michael Harrison to go before the council and explain just how effective the spy plane program actually is. She’s also calling on the Board of Estimates to call a public hearing on the program so that Baltimoreans can weigh in.

STERNER: And I understand that a bill to help increase city revenue was introduced last night, too.

That’s right. Like cities across the country, Baltimore is hurting from the financial impact of the pandemic. Its revenue plummeted back in the spring as employers eliminated jobs, people drove less and fewer tourists visited Baltimore. The city recently had to authorize a $25 million withdrawal from its Rainy Day Fund.

So, City Council President Brandon Scott says, the city has to take in new revenue. Last night, he introduced a bill to tax electronic smoking devices. His legislation would put a 30% tax on vape pens, e-cigarettes, e-hookahs and the like.

SCOTT: If we can’t ban them, we can sure tax them, and we can do it in a way that’s in line with the rest of the state. Not to mention the COVID-19 fiscal hit that we’ve taken. We have to be thinking about how we can generate revenue as a city.

STERNER: And what about bills that passed at last night’s meeting? 

SULLIVAN: One prominent tax sale bill, introduced by Councilwoman Danielle McCray of Northeast Baltimore. 

Every year Baltimore City hosts a tax sale as a way to collect debts owed.

Houses with debt attached are included in this sale. The debt  -- from things like outstanding property tax bills -- must reach at least $250 for places where the owner does not live and $750 for homes that are the owner’s main residence. 

And this sale is quite the moneymaker for Baltimore -- last year, it netted around $20 million in a single day, in part by selling the liens on homes to investors -- who can then collect the debts themselves...with interest. And if an owner doesn’t or can’t pay up, that investor is able to foreclose on their house. 

McCray’s bill stops this process by banning the city from putting homes owned by people who are over the age of 65, low-income or who have disabilities into the tax sale. She has argued that the bill is about protecting vulnerable residents and attempting to reconcile Baltimore’s history of housing segregation like redlining and blockbusting, and how that’s contributed to racial wealth disparity.  


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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