At least a third of Baltimore City Council members expressed concern last night that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's recent endorsement of a 4 percent cap on the growth of property taxes has produced such a tidal wave of support that any chance for more moderate tax-cutting measures has been washed away.
"It makes it more difficult to take another approach, one that makes more sense from an economic point of view," said Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, D-3rd.
"There should be a comprehensive strategy," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd. "We need to solve the whole puzzle and not just a piece."
Yesterday, two property tax-cutting bills were introduced in the 19-member council, bills that even supporters said could swiftly cut the city's ability to collect revenues at a time its budget is stretched.
"I have concerns about how we're going to keep services," said Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch, D-4th. "But I'm going to support them," she said of the tax limits. "We need to do something for taxpayers."
One bill, the tax cap that has the mayor's support, would limit to 4 percent the amount that property tax assessments for most owner-occupied homes could grow in a single year. Eighteen supporters signed on to the bill, which was introduced at Mr. Schmoke's request.
Finance officials have estimated that the cap could cost Baltimore $2.5 million annually in lost revenue.
The other bill, which supporters refer to as BOLT -- Baltimore's Opportunity to Lower Taxes -- and about which the mayor has XTC reservations, would require the city to reduce the property tax rate each year by an amount equal to the growth in tax revenue from construction during the previous year.
For example, if construction allowed the city's tax base to yield an extra $4 million in taxes one year, the city would be required to cut the property tax rate to reflect that; in this case, the city's tax rate of $5.95 per $100 of assessed value would be reduced by a nickel.
Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, a lead sponsor on both bills, said that if BOLT had been in place last year, the city would have been required to cut the tax rate by about 18 cents.
That would have forced budget officials to contend with a $14.4 million shortfall.
Council members have said that, having spent the past two years wringing as much excess from the city budget as they could, finance officials will be hard-pressed to come up with additional savings without resorting to such politically painful choices as layoffs or library closings.
But with an election next year, council members are looking for ways of answering the grumblings of homeowners upset because Baltimore's property tax rate is more than twice that of the next most expensive Maryland jurisdiction -- Baltimore County, which has a rate of $2.895.
However, Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, branded the tax cap as a regressive measure, providing relief to only some taxpayers while leaving others exposed.
"The voters out there and the property owners are screaming for some kind of relief," Mr. Schaefer said. Without tax relief, he said, the city will see its tax base erode as homeowners leave in droves.
Peter N. Marudas, the mayor's liaison with the council, said the administration was cool to BOLT because it could further complicate the city's taxing system at a time when a gubernatorial commission has called for a simpler and more equitable taxing system.
"At first glance it would seem to complicate things and raise a lot of questions as to how you would apply something like this," Mr. Marudas said "I think it would be fair to say the administration has some reservations."
In other business, Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, introduced a bill that would require anyone carrying an electronic pager to get a permit or face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The pagers, or beepers, are often used in drug trafficking.
The council also gave preliminary approval to the sale of an abandoned school administration building at the corner of North Calvert and 23rd streets to a developer who plans to convert it into offices for various women's organizations.