Schmoke to seek income tax rise Money would pay for more police

March 26, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- acting in the wake of a two-week rash of killings, including the murder of a nun in her convent -- said yesterday he would seek a rise in the city's "piggyback" income tax rate from 50 percent to 52 percent and use the money to put more police officers on the streets.

Mayor Schmoke said the increase would allow the city to hire 60 officers Jan. 1 and another 60 July 1, 1994. It would cost the average city taxpayer an additional $18 a year, and raise about $4 million annually for the city.

The extra money would allow the Police Department to fill existing vacancies, the mayor said.

The Police Department has 2,872 officers -- 167 less than its authorized strength of 3,039, a spokesman said. That represents a decline of more than 500 from the 3,413 officers in the city in 1970 and a drop of more than 100 from the 2,980 officers in 1980, police figures show. Violent crimes totaled 18,905 in 1970; 16,571 in 1980 and 21,799 last year, figures show.

If approved by the City Council, the new 52 percent piggyback tax rate would take effect Jan. 1.

Last November, Mayor Schmoke proposed an increase in the city's piggyback rate -- calculated as a percentage of taxpayers' state income tax -- from 50 percent to 55 percent that would have paid for additional police and firefighters. But the proposal encountered such quick and vehement opposition that the mayor withdrew it two weeks later.

This year, however, Mayor Schmoke believes things may be different. After conversations with council members this week, he concluded that there is sentiment for a smaller increase if the money is spent only on hiring police officers.

"My sense -- and I haven't started counting numbers yet -- is there is a majority now on the council who favor a modest increase as long as that money clearly goes in a separate and identifiable fund so that people can monitor spending for police purposes," he said.

Sixth District Democratic Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, chairman of the council's tax committee, agreed the smaller increase "may be less objectionable." He said he would "reserve judgment" because he would chair the hearings on the mayor's proposal.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said most of the council members were "keeping an open mind" on the proposal. Ms. Clarke said she generally opposes any additional taxes, but might support the proposal only as a "very last resort" to improve police protection.

But some council members vowed yesterday to oppose the increase.

Councilman Perry Sfikas, a 1st District Democrat, said city residents were already burdened by high property taxes and auto insurance rates. "We cannot put any more burden on these folks," he said.

Rather than increase taxes, the city needs to "better manage the police department" and cut nonessential services, he said.

Third District Democrat Martin O'Malley also said that he was opposed to a piggyback tax increase and that he was helping to craft a package of alternative measures that would raise the same amount of money.

"There are different ways to raise revenue other than the same old knee-jerk reactions that have been driving the city into the ground," he said.

Among the measures he supports, Mr. O'Malley said, are a $200 annual licensing fee on billboards; an increased tax on downtown parking facilities; and payments in lieu of taxes from large nonprofit institutions that rely on city services such as police and fire protection.

Last year, the General Assembly gave authority to Baltimore and the state's 23 counties to raise the maximum piggyback rates to give them a chance to make up for cuts in local state aid.

Since then, five counties have raised their rates beyond the 50 percent level. They include the populous metropolitan jurisdictions of Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as Allegany and Talbot counties.

Some legislators from wealthier jurisdictions have been critical of the city for asking for state aid but failing to raise its piggyback tax rate. Under state law, increases in the piggyback tax rates must be approved by June 1 and would take affect at the beginning of the calendar year.

Mr. Schmoke, who has said he is contemplating a run for governor in 1994, acknowledged that his ability to deal with urban crime could be an issue if he does decide to run.

"I'm aware that my record in not only the crime area but in many others will be a significant issue if I decide to run," he said at his weekly press briefing.

The mayor said that he was sensitive to the tax burdens faced by city residents, whose property tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value is about twice that of surrounding jurisdictions.

"That's why we're not seeking property tax increases," he said.

But he said that on balance city residents "are willing to pay more for certain things, one of those being public safety and, specifically, more police.

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