It was hot and uncomfortable for members of the Baltimore City Council last night. They sat high on a podium in the sweltering War Memorial, staring into the glare of television lights and listening as taxpayers from across the city told them the council taxes too much because it spends too much.
"I think we're spending entirely too much money on tourist attractions, the Inner Harbor and the stadium," said Lauren Siegel, a Waverly homeowner.
"We really think that a line-by-line scrutiny [of the city budget] would turn up a lot of money," Kimberly A. Berger, president of the Baltimore City Homeowners' Coalition for Fair Property Taxes, said shortly before the meeting began.
Last night's Taxpayer Night hearing, which drew about 150 people, was part of the council's review of the $1.794 billion city operating budget proposed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for fiscal 1992. The council, which must pass a city budget before the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, may cut the budget but, by law, may not add to it.
Members of the homeowners' group have been pressing City Hall for a 10-cent cut of Baltimore's property tax, which, at $5.95 per $100 of assessed value, is more than twice that of any other Maryland subdivision. The coalition chartered two buses, reserved a parking lot and distributed leaflets through 210 community organizations in an effort to encourage a large turnout at the taxpayer forum.
Coalition members, who believe the city could save money by being more efficient, urged council members to press the mayor to hire a management consulting firm to recommend ways of streamlining the 27,000-member municipal work force.
"Is it reasonable that these steps not be taken to preserve the middle-class taxpayers who have not left the city?" Ms. Berger asked. "I don't think our demands are unreasonable, given the alternative that we leave and take our piggyback taxes with us."
The city's finance director, William R. Brown, has said that, although the city asked private business leaders in Baltimore to recommend ways to be more efficient, hiring a consulting firm could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars with no guarantee of any savings.
The coalition also urged council members to back the mayor's veto of a bill that would end a tax on beverage containers, saying that the city needs the $6.9 million the tax generates annually to ease the tax burden on homeowners.
"I'm not saying it is the fairest tax, but it just might be the stopgap that is needed this year," Ms. Berger said of the so-called bottle tax, which levies 2 cents on beer and soda containers under 16 ounces and 4 cents on larger containers. Although most council members have called for an end to the bottle tax, it remains to be seen whether council members feel strongly enough override the mayor's veto and risk being blamed for scuttling a chance at property tax reduction. The council must gather 15 votes to override the mayor's veto by June 19.
In vetoing the tax repeal bill last month, Mr. Schmoke said he would consider a small tax cut this year. But his adviser for intergovernmental affairs, Peter N. Marudas, said yesterday that the public clamor for more services, such as street cleaning and increased police protection, will make tax reduction difficult this year.
The chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, agreed.
"I don't see it," Mr. DiBlasi said of the possibility of reducing the budget to allow for tax reduction this year. "There just isn't anything left to cut."
Daniel J. Loden, a Homeland resident who is vice president of the taxpayer coalition, said he understands that cities must provide services if they are to serve as cohesive forces within society. But he said that cities risk trying to provide so much that they destroy the foundation of homeowners who pay the freight.
"We believe in cities as a social thing: You do away with cities, and you do away with what is left of this culture," said Mr. Loden.