A measure to cut taxes for beleaguered city homeowners moved like a steamroller through the Baltimore City Council, flattening doubters on its way to winning overwhelming preliminary approval even though some supporters fear it is going too far too fast.
The bill, which has been endorsed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and 17 of the council's 19 members, would limit to 4 percent the amount that property tax assessments for most owner-occupied houses in the city could grow in a single year.
The 4 percent cap would curb property tax bills for some 71,000 homeowners, according to city figures.
If for example, the assessment on a house rose by 20 percent, the owner would be billed as if the property's value had increased by only 4 percent.
Officials in the Department of Finance, who were urging the mayor last month to support a 10 percent cap, have estimated that a 4 percent cap would cost the city $2.5 million annually in lost revenue.
Yesterday, the proposed 4 percent cap raised several concerns among council members.
Council members said the loss of revenue might not be wise because Baltimore could ill afford to give away revenue at a time when dwindling tax bases, the weak economy and declines in federal aid have left cities scrounging for resources.
They also expressed concern that lowering the assessment cap in Baltimore would undermine the efforts of city representatives in Annapolis to persuade their colleagues to send more aid to Baltimore.
Some council members said they would rather see a cut in the property tax rate than an assessment cap -- because a rate cut would reduce the tax burden for all property owners, not just homeowners.
"I believe we ought to have a cap but a higher one," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, the lone council member to vote against the measure. "Why do we need to be the lower limit?"
"I wish we had more time to study this," said Carl Stokes, D-2nd. "I, too, would rather see a tax rate cut so that all homeowners would benefit," not just those whose assessments increased by more than 4 percent.
But with an election year looming in 1991, other council members argued that without relief, middle-class homeowners who bore a disproportionate burden of the cost of such city services as school teachers, museum guards and housing inspectors would leave the city.
At $5.95 per $100 of assessed value, Baltimore's property tax rate is more than double that of any other Maryland subdivision.
"We simply have to protect ourselves from a growing disparity in property taxes between the city and the counties," said the council president, Mary Pat Clarke.
The final vote on the bill will be Monday. Yesterday's debate was precipitated by a new state law that reduced from 15 percent to 10 percent the maximum amount that tax assessments could increase in a single year.
But lawmakers allowed Baltimore and Maryland's 23 counties to provide additional relief by setting their caps even lower.
Baltimore County, which shares the city's northern, western and eastern borders, immediately lowered its cap to 4 percent.
In other business, council members haggled over proposed changes in the rules governing the council that Mrs. Clarke said could bring the business of filling vacant council seats out of smoke-filled rooms and into the public eye.
Under a rule change proposed by Mrs. Clarke, the two remaining members from a councilmanic district with a vacant seat would hold a public hearing to interview possible replacements within 30 days.
The two incumbents would then have 30 days to recommend a successor to the council for a vote.
In the past, the process of selecting a successor to a vacant seat has been left to the council members in that district, and their choices have been routinely ratified by the rest of the council. That has engendered criticism from those who say that the process allows entrenched organizations to perpetuate their hold on council seats.
Last February, when Councilmen Timothy D. Murphy and Joseph J. DiBlasi, both D-6th, appointed Edward L. Reisinger III to fill the vacancy created by the death of William J. Myers, critics said the process frustrated black voters in the 6th District, who make up about 40 percent of the area's population. Mr. Murphy and Mr. DiBlasi came into the council initially through appointments.
Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, offered a bill that would amend the City Charter to allow the candidate who finished fourth in the prior council district election to fill a seat vacated in that district. Mr. DiBlasi proposed a rules change that would allow for a public hearing and a private interview of applicants seeking to fill a vacant seat.
The council will vote Monday on whether to adopt a rules change.
The charter amendment need council approval and ratification by the electorate.