When it comes to putting a price tag on Baltimore’s expansive list of tax incentives for developers, even a simple request for financial data can lead to complicated answers. City officials learned this the hard way when they asked the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) for data on what was being spent on cleaning up contaminated sites that have earned a lucrative tax break known as a Brownfields tax credit. 

Instead of sharing the data, the MDE forced the city to file a Maryland Public Information Act request in order to access it. The request also prompted state officials to reveal that the program is not required to track remediation costs for these cleanups. 

“The Land Restoration Program has repeatedly informed the city that we do not have costs of remediation for projects,” MDE spokesman Jay Apperson told TRNN when asked why the city had to file an MPIA request. “MDE’s Land Restoration Program’s responsibility is to review the assessment and remediation of sites. The program neither asks for nor is provided with cost information for remediation.” 

The revelation that the state does not tabulate what property owners are spending to clean up contaminated sites comes as city officials have expressed frustration with the increasingly costly tax credit. Baltimore grants roughly $20 million annually to developers who qualify for the credit, and the city must also pay into a state program that funds remediation across Maryland. However, finance officials have little control over who receives the credit and how much the incentive benefits Baltimore in return.  

Concerns over the rising cost of the credit and how it was being used by developers was the subject of an internal memo circulated among the top staff of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration in 2021. 

“According to conversations with BDC, most of the City can technically qualify as a brownfield due to small traces of toxic material that can be found in soils from prior industrial uses. As such, the State does not designate individual parcels as brownfields before development begins,” the memo outlines.

“Instead, builders eye land that is ripe for development, and then get the parcel certified as a brownfield site through MDE. This turns the intent of the program on its head. Instead of compensating builders for performing clean ups of known contaminated sites, it allows developers to purchase land and then perform the minimum cleanup effort in order to qualify for a generous credit,” the memo argued.

The increasing costs and lack of data on what’s being spent to reclaim contaminated property prompted the city to ask MDE for data. Apperson explained the city was asked to file a MPIA request — an unusual demand of a municipality seeking information — due to the breadth and scope of information the city asked the agency to provide. “The Land Restoration Program often provides information without a PIA request, however this request was large, for files — related to, initially, 14 sites, later about 28 sites — requiring time and resources,” Apperson wrote in an email to TRNN.

Questions of just how much the city benefits from the Brownfields tax credit was first highlighted by a TRNN report which revealed the state application for one of the most controversial recipients, the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel and condominiums, did not include costs for remediation. The application resulted in Brownfields credits worth roughly $10.5 million: $6.8 million for the condos atop the hotel and $3.4 million for the hotel itself. However, the application revealed that in 2007 the developer’s lawyer told state officials there was no contamination on the planned site of the building.

“Prior environmental evaluations, several rounds of sampling and analysis, and environmental monitoring during construction through late 2007, did not indicate environmental contamination within the site boundary,” the lawyer wrote in an affidavit. MDE officials said that construction can serve as remediation. For example, Apperson noted while building the Four Seasons parking garage traces of chromium were found in the water near a slurry wall. Thus building the wall itself would count as remediation, he said.

Recently the cost of Brownfields credits awarded to developers in Baltimore has exploded, rising roughly 154% over the past five years. The total cost to the city’s budget has more than doubled from $8 million annually in 2016 to $20 million in 2020, according to a report commissioned by the city to study tax breaks.

The program was authorized by the Maryland state legislature in 1997 to encourage developers to remediate property that was contaminated by past industrial use. It grants a 50% tax break for five years for certified properties, and 10 years if the project is located in an Enterprise Zone, another tax credit that incentivizes commercial development in impoverished neighborhoods.

The lack of transparency around the Brownfields tax credit is examined in “Tax Broke,” a broader TRNN investigation into Baltimore’s reliance on tax breaks to fuel development. The series includes a documentary outlining the history of the city’s struggle to grow, and how incentives created to attract residents and new development has led to burgeoning costs and little transparency on the final price tag or the performance of the projects financed with tax breaks.

The investigation found that the system for awarding tax incentives is plagued by lax transparency and little, if any, analysis on the performance of the projects that receive them. The cost of Baltimore’s tax credits and subsidies is now coming under new scrutiny as the city faces an unexpected increase in state requirements on spending for education. Under the Kirwan Blueprint for Education, a revised formula requires the city to spend an additional $79.4 million on local education for fiscal year 2024, six times more than expected. City officials have called the increased spending a “gut punch.”

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Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.

Jayne Miller

Jayne Miller is the former Chief Investigative Reporter for WBAL-TV in Baltimore.
She was a broadcast journalist for more than 45 years before her retirement in 2022. Her reporting led to changes in legislation, public policy and private industry practices and standards. Jayne is a Penn State Alumni Fellow. Her work earned a duPont-Columbia award, an Edward R. Murrow award, and a National Headliner award. She was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) in 2022. Jayne lives in Baltimore and is active in civic affairs, serving on the boards of several nonprofits, including Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Leadership Baltimore County, the Canton Community Association, and Citizens Planning and Housing Association. She is now working on podcasting and documentary production. @jemillerbalt