City Council kills piggyback tax

December 09, 1992

Kurt L. Schmoke's failure to get enough City Council support behind his proposed piggyback tax increase underscores once again what a quizzical politician Baltimore's two-term mayor is.

As with major initiatives in the past, the mayor was content to propose something and then sit back, without explaining or lobbying. This kind of power vacuum then allowed the council and its president, Mary Pat Clarke, to do all the dancing around the discards of what started as the mayor's priority bill.

If these things were logical, one might think that Mr. Schmoke let all this happen because he really did not want to hire 233 more police officers and 100 more firefighters. Except that such a conclusion is wrong. Both the mayor and the City Council want more safety measures; they just cannot agree on how to go about achieving that goal.

The killing of the proposed piggyback tax increase now puts the onus on the council to show how the city ought to cope with its steadily increasing budget difficulties. "It's 'zero-based' time, I think," Council President Clarke said yesterday.

The council always talks about zero-based budgets but never gets its act together. That could happen one of these days, however. Indeed, in rejecting the piggyback increase proposal, the council wanted to make a number of points.

Because of the unpredictability of the state budget situation, the council felt there was no way Mayor Schmoke or the council itself could guarantee that revenues from an increased income tax would be used for their ostensible purpose, public safety. But the council also wanted to make it known that it is not convinced that the police and fire departments are run today in a fashion that necessitates heavy new infusions of money.

This is a point which has not been made explicitly yet. But privately many council members complain they have no idea what the police department hopes to achieve through its confused implementation of the community policing philosophy. They seem to have similar questions about the fire department's operation.

If the council is serious about further downsizing, all this could be very significant. With about 65 percent of the municipal budget going to education, police and fire, those previously JTC sacrosanct areas may well be in for budget-driven downsizing and shifting of priorities. After all, many other smaller departments have already taken so many hits in the past four years that they are just shadows of their former selves.

In killing the proposed piggyback tax increase and not wanting to raise the exorbitant property tax rate, the City Council is running out of options.

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