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Major Move on Minor Privilege

The Baltimore City Board of Estimates has begun phasing out annual fees for businesses that want to add amenities such as lighting or bike racks outside their establishments.

The move is a relief for Michael Wood, owner of High Grounds Coffee at Eastern and South East avenues in Highlandtown.  He pays $500 a year for the privilege of sprucing up his café with outdoor seating, a bike rack in the shape of a coffee cup, lights for a mural on one side of his building and a lighted awning that wraps around the building. That is in addition to one time construction fees.

“When we wanted to put the awnings up, we had to pay a $77 fee for the contractor to erect a ladder,” Wood said.

Under the plan the board approved Wednesday, Wood won’t have to pay for the bike rack or the lights on the mural after this year. Fees for the lighted awning will be eliminated after next year. He will still have to pay an annual fee for his outdoor seating, but not having to pay the other fees is a big deal to him.

“It puts more money back into our hands so that we can hire people; so we can give out current staff raises; so that we can continue to do more improvements,” he said.

Businesses that want to add similar amenities to their establishments have to apply to the city’s General Services Department, which then notifies neighbors of what that business wants to do. Then the Board of Estimates looks over the application to decide whether to grant the privilege and charges fees.

Eliminating some of the fees will cost the city $855,000 annually.  Officials hope that will encourage others business owners to follow Wood’s lead and reinvest in their businesses.

This is the second time in the last year the fees have come up at City Hall.

Councilman Jim Kraft, whose district includes Wood’s coffee shop, introduced a charter amendment last year that would have moved authority for assessing the fees from the Board to the City Council. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed that plan. She said at the time she was working on a reform plan.

When comparing her plan with Kraft’s bill, Rawlings-Blake said Kraft’s plan was not comprehensive and would take too long to reduce the fees.  Kraft did not return a request for comment.