Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, seeking to reassert authority over the proposed city budget, vetoed a City Council bill yesterday that would have repealed Baltimore's beverage-container tax.
The mayor said he vetoed the bill because he was "nervous" that repeal of the 2-year-old tax would eliminate $6.9 million in revenue at a time when the city is imposing wage freezes and other austerity measures. He said he wanted to be "emphatic" that the city could not afford to lose that money.
"In view of that," Mr. Schmoke said, "I had to veto the repeal."
But the mayor also said he was willing to sign legislation that would cut the present tax in half, and he even suggested alternative revenue sources that would permit such a cut. The current tax imposes a levy of 2 cents on beverage containers up to 16 ounces and 4 cents on containers over 16 ounces.
And extending an apparent olive branch to the council -- which had passed the bottle tax repeal April 22 over his opposition -- Mr. Schmoke said he was willing to work with council members to try to cut the city's property tax rate, which at $5.95 is more than twice that of any other Maryland subdivision and, politically, a much more unpopular tax.
Mr. Schmoke had not recommended a property tax cut when he submitted his $1.79 billion fiscal 1992 budget -- an omission that disappointed council members who, like Mr. Schmoke, are running for re-election .
"We will work together," the mayor said yesterday.
To make up for revenue lost through a property tax cut, the mayor suggested that the city could impose surcharges on items ranging from municipal golf cart rentals to refrigerators and other bulk items sold in the city, items that eventually find their way to city landfills.
It appeared unlikely yesterday that proponents of the bottle tax repeal would attempt to gather the 15 votes needed to override Mr. Schmoke's veto.
Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, a supporter of the repeal, said he thought any move to override the mayor's veto stood little chance of success.
"Based on the vote to repeal the tax, which was 13 to 6, I think the veto will be sustained," he said.
Even though the council passed the bottle tax repeal, it had not yet found alternative revenue sources to balance the budget as legally required. The mayor, on the other hand, proposed two revenue sources yesterday to pay for his suggestion that the bottle tax could be cut in half.
Mr. Schmoke proposed charging a 5 percent fee to businesses that use hauling companies to dispose of trash and increasing by $5 per ton the so-called tipping fee charged to haulers who dump at city landfills and incinerators.
In all, the mayor estimated that his reduced container tax and alternative revenue package would generate $7.5 million per year, which would exceed the $6.9 million generated by the current container tax arrangement.
Council President Mary Pat Clarke said that by taxing trash as it was collected from businesses, the mayor's alternative would encourage recycling and lend momentum to a council effort to change Baltimore's traditional dependence on property taxes as a way of paying for waste disposal.
"That is the signal that I think we needed," Mrs. Clarke said.
The mayor's revenue proposals are expected to generate counterproposals from council members, however.
Mrs. Clarke is among those who would like to eliminate the bottle tax altogether, as Baltimore County officials did Jan. 1. Container-tax opponents on the council, who have been lobbied hard by the beverage industry, say that because the city is surrounded by non-tax counties, city beverage merchants are losing business to their counterparts across the county line.
Mr. DiBlasi, chairman of the council's budget and finance committee, said he was opposed to taxing businesses for the amount of trash they produce -- a "trash-generator tax" -- because it would be difficult to administer and would bring opposition from hospitals, restaurants and other high-volume trash producers.
Instead, Mr. DiBlasi said, he favored a straight $10-per-ton tipping fee increase, with no charge directly assessed on trash producers.