Battle begins over plan to raise piggyback tax

March 30, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

The City Council fired the opening salvos last night in what promises to be an emotional debate over the Schmoke administration's proposed 2 percent increase in Baltimore's "piggyback" income tax rate.

Some council members who favor increasing the tax, which the administration said would raise enough money to put an additional 120 police officers on the street, argued that residents are fed up with crime and are willing to pay a small additional amount of money for improved public safety.

But council members who oppose the proposal said they are just as frustrated with high taxes and said that alternatives to raising income taxes need to be explored to find the additional funds for paying for more police. And others said they would need assurances that the Police Department would deploy the extra officers effectively before they voted for the increase.

The debate came after the introduction of the administration's bill for the 2 percent increase in the piggyback tax rate and a resolution asking the finance director to explore alternative revenue-raising measures, including an increase in downtown parking garage fees and payments in lieu of taxes by large nonprofit institutions. Both measures were referred to the tax committee, which is not expected to have hearings before late next month.

The bill would increase the percentage of taxpayers' state income tax from 50 percent to 52 percent. It would cost the average city taxpayer $18 a year and allow the police department to fill 120 of its 167 vacancies, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last week.

Last night's council meeting was in marked contrast to the meeting last November, after the mayor proposed a 5 percent increase in the piggyback tax to pay for more police and firefighters.

At that November meeting, a near-majority of the 18-member council stood up to publicly denounce the proposed increase, and the administration withdrew it two weeks later.

Last night, however, only three council members voiced their opposition to the increase and four spoke in favor of it.

"Most people know I constantly vote against any tax. However, my constituents feel they've been pushed to the limit with crime. We're more tired of the crime than anything that has happened to us," said Councilwoman Agnes Welch, D-4th.

Peter Marudas, the mayor's legislative representative, said he was encouraged that the reaction of the council was "far more favorable" to the 2 percent tax rise than it was to last November's heftier increase. He also noted after last night's meeting that "everyone conceded we need more law enforcement."

Council President Mary Pat Clarke also noted the "consensus."

"When we find the source of revenue -- whatever that source is -- we need to do better," she said.

Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd, lead sponsor of the resolution, was adamant that the source of funds not come from increased taxes. "We can no longer sit and watch the city engage in the fiscal cannibalism of eating our own taxpayers," he declared.

But Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, D-6th, said that of 104 people with whom he had talked during the past few days, 101 approved of the 2 percent tax increase.

"No one wants to see taxes increased. But we've got tremendous problems that need to be dealt with," he said.

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