The seven black members of the City Council are fighting council President Mary Pat Clarke's plan to force a vote on overriding the mayor's veto of a bill repealing the city's beverage container tax.
Several members of the council's African-American coalition have met with Clarke this week in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade her to cancel the override vote, scheduled for Monday.
The problem is election-year politics. Although the council voted to repeal the container tax as of May 31, it actually needs the container tax revenue to help smooth the way for an election rTC year cut in the more sensitive property tax rate.
The city collects 4 cents on beverage containers larger than 16 ounces and 2 cents for those 16 ounces and smaller.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Kurt Schmoke vetoed the repeal measure. The mayor, who included $6.9 million in revenue from the tax in his $2.1 billion fiscal year 1992 budget, said the council had not come up with other revenue sources to replace the container tax.
At the news conference announcing the veto, Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, D-5th, chair of the African-American coalition, said her group supported the mayor. The coalition has argued that the city needs the container tax money.
It would take 15 votes from the 19-member council to override the mayor's veto. With the seven black members voting to sustain, the 12 other council members could safely vote to override and get credit for trying to lower taxes without worrying about the fiscal downside of succeeding.
The black council members, meanwhile, would be stuck with the political onus of voting against lower taxes.
"If Mary Pat goes through with the veto override vote, it forces the coalition to vote to sustain the veto and that would spot us politically," said Reeves. "There's little sentiment among the council for an override vote, so what's the point?"
"Since our seven votes alone would be enough to prevent a veto override, the other council members could safely vote to override the veto and then, in their re-election campaigning, say they voted for a property tax reduction plus [say that they] voted to override the mayor's veto," added Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, a coalition member.
The council wants a 5-cent cut in the property tax rate -- which now stands at $5.95 for each $100 of assessed value. Since each cent on the tax rate represents about $800,000 in revenue, the council would have have to come up with $4.2 million in revenue to make up for the tax cut or chop the mayor's budget, which most council members agree is already a bare-bones document.
Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said the council is not likely to make significant cuts in the budget.
But if the council should override the veto and the container tax is repealed, the lawmakers would have to find $6.9 million to replace the container tax revenue just to balance the budget, before coming up with more revenue to offset a cut in the property tax rate.
By insisting on an override vote, Clarke said, she is not "going to war" with the African-American coalition or any one else in the council.
"For that matter, Councilwoman Reeves made the coalition's position on an override vote perfectly clear to everyone at the mayor's press conference," Clarke said.
Clarke said she made a commitment to trade unions and the bottling industry earlier this year that if the city could find other revenues she would do her best to end the container tax by the time the council recesses for the summer on June 24.
"I made this commitment to get the industry off the backs of council members," said Clarke. "Now I have my integrity to protect."
Earlier this year, an industry lobby group ran newspaper and radio advertisements targeting the council members who favored keep
ing the container tax.
"We have other revenue source bills before us and if the administration would actively support those bills and the council passes them, then maybe everyone can vote to end the container tax," said Clarke.
The council's Policy and Planning Committee heard testimony on one of those revenue bills yesterday afternoon -- legislation that would create a wholesale distributor tax on non-recyclable items such as car and truck batteries and kitchen stoves.
Industry representatives, predictably, opposed the measures.
Douglas Brown, a city budget analyst, told the committee that the wholesale distributor tax on the items included in the bill could generate $700,000 in new revenue in the first year but cost only $70,000 to set up and administer.
Still, Brown said, city finance officials don't think the tax would be enforceable or cost effective because of difficulty in dealing with so many distributors here and in other states.
Along with imposing a tax on non-recyclables, the bill, sponsored by Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, would keep the container tax, but at half its current rate. The beverage industry opposes that portion of the legislation.