'Ghost town' feared if tax rise is OK'd But public safety officials press its need

December 04, 1992|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

A Baltimore taxpayer group warned City Council members yesterday that approval of a proposed local income tax increase would turn the city into a ghost town.

But Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods and Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. offered bleak assessments of public safety in the city without the additional revenue from the tax increase proposed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for increased police and fire protection.

"Are we going to become a city of ghosts?" asked Daniel J. Loden, president of the Baltimore City Homeowners Coalition for Fair Property Taxes, a group that opposes increasing the so-called "piggyback tax."

"That's what's happening -- you can't tax the city back to health. . . . Taxes have driven out 100,000 people since 1980," Mr. Loden told members of the council's Taxation and Finance Committee at a hearing yesterday.

"How much more can the taxpayers take?" asked David B. Rudow, another member of the group and one of nearly one-dozen people who testified on measure. "I know the police officers are stressed, I know the firefighters are stressed, but so are the taxpayers."

Mr. Schmoke's proposal to raise the piggyback tax rate to 55 percent from 50 percent, effective Jan. 1, is an attempt to compensate for the cuts of $33.6 million in state aid since July 1.

The piggyback tax is a local income tax, withheld by employers, that is calculated as a percentage of the amount of income tax an individual pays each year to the state.

The mayor's plan would generate $4.3 million in revenue for the cash-poor city in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and another $10.2 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, finance officials said.

With the additional money, the city could hire 120 police officers this year -- integral to launching the department's new community policing program -- and another 113 officers next year.

The added revenue also would allow the hiring of 100 firefighters to eliminate the department's current practice of staffing apparatus with three firefighters, instead of four, officials said.

"I believe a city like Baltimore needs to do more than hold its own" against crime, said Commissioner Woods, who painted a grim picture of an overburdened police force to the council, in urging members to approve the measure.

Chief Williams told the council that the situation for firefighters was a "very serious problem" with current staffing levels posing a risk for firefighters and citizens alike.

He also said that without the additional tax revenue the department might have to close some fire stations.

After the hearing, Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, the committee chairman, said he was unsure whether he would send the administration bill to the council floor at its meeting Monday evening.

Council members say chances of the bill's passage at this point are too close to call, although the mayor needs only 10 votes for passage.

PIGGYBACK RATES

20 percent: Worcester* 55 percent: Baltimore, Montgomery** and Allegany** 60 percent: Prince George's and Talbot 50 percent: Baltimore City and all other counties.

* Rises to 30 percent Jan. 1.

** Rises to 60 percent Jan. 1.

Source: Office of the Comptroller

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