CUMBERLAND — Most of the downtown mall area and some adjacent spots are part of something called a special taxing district. And like the old beer commercial, even those living in the district might echo crime writer turned actor Mickey Spillane by saying, “It’s a mystery to me.”
Taking some of the mystery out of the district and how it works was the aim of a presentation to the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee by Downtown Development Commission members Wednesday morning at chamber offices.
“Most of the people who live in the special taxing district don’t know what it is or why they are paying the tax,” said Sandi Saville of the Downtown Development Commission. Saville was joined in making the presentation by Jennifer Light, assistant downtown manager.
The tax generates $215,000 a year, Saville said, with some individual building owners paying as much as $15,000 a year in taxes. That doesn’t cover the owner’s regular city taxes. The special taxing district taxes are based on the assessed value of the real estate. That money funds the DDC, an organization aiming to keep the downtown mall area viable. The taxes pay for bonds, maintenance and operations. Portions of a building used as the owner’s primary residence are exempt from the tax. The original bond funding has been paid off, Saville said.
The taxes also pay for salaries for the downtown managers, maintenance workers, partial salaries for a city secretary and half of the code officers’ salaries. They also pay for snow removal (not including city streets), marketing and events. Saville said the salaries are not excessive, but do take up the biggest chunk of the DDC budget.
The district covers a large swath of the downtown area of the city, bordered by Interstate 68, Queen City Drive, Bedford Street and Wills Creek.
“It’s pretty much from railroad track to railroad track,” Saville said.
“We can recommend things, but we don’t have a lot of power,” she said, adding that the DDC does have a clear goal. “What happens on that mall should benefit those who pay the taxes.”
The mall and its operations are the primary responsibility of the DDC. That accounts for recent meetings to reach out to owners and residents of the area.
Encouraging increased residency downtown is one hope of the DDC for economic development.
The idea is “to get people living downtown,” Saville said. Using the upper floors of buildings as living spaces could help sustain the downtown economy.
“You want people living upstairs,” Saville said, because those people use the retail shops and restaurants.
The main obstacle is parking near the apartments or condos, Saville said. Kim Leonard of the chamber asked if more parking might not be possible by opening up some space under buildings that were vacant.
The nature of the tax concerned one economic development committee member.
“It seems to me the tax itself is a huge deterrent (to economic development), said Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine, who suggested some possible ways to ease the tax burden.
Valentine suggested the DDC decide on a figure needed to fund their operations and then as more businesses and individuals moved in, allow the taxes to drop for everyone once the baseline figure needed by the DDC was met. Any decision on that would be up to the mayor and council, Saville said.
Contact Matthew Bieniek at email@example.com.