Tax rise proposal debated Support for boost in piggyback rate is fueled by crime

April 11, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Mary Dorsey is a single mother who supports three children on a barmaid's wages. On many nights, she can hear the sound of gunfire on the streets outside her Madison Avenue apartment in a high-crime, high-drug area of West Baltimore.

Ms. Dorsey supports Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal to increase the piggyback income tax from 50 percent to 52 percent to pay for 120 more police officers to patrol city neighborhoods -- even if it winds up costing her something.

"We need more police. There's too much shooting going on," she explained.

Harry Stein is a married father of three who works as a factory mechanic. Although his home was burglarized once, he feels secure in his "nice, well-established neighborhood" of Hamilton in Northeast Baltimore.

Mr. Stein opposes the increase in the piggyback tax.

"I pay enough taxes as it is," he said emphatically.

Ms. Dorsey and Mr. Stein represent the extremes in the debate over the proposed piggyback tax increase. It is a debate that brings into sharp relief the conflict and the relationship between crime and taxes. It is also one that has several subtexts, including the operation of the Police Department, government economies and alternatives and, most subtly, race and class.

Crime problem

Last November, Mr. Schmoke proposed an increase in the city's piggyback tax -- calculated as a percentage of the state income tax -- from 50 percent to 55 percent. He said the proceeds would be used to hire more police and firefighters.

His proposal was roundly ridiculed the day it was introduced in the City Council. The mayor, realizing he could not muster the necessary 10 votes for passage, withdrew the proposal two weeks later.

On March 25, less than four months later, Mr. Schmoke unveiledhis proposal for an increase in the tax to 52 percent. By eliminating firefighters from his new proposal, the mayor was not only able to halve the amount of the increase, he also was able to tie it directly to the crime problem. To counter concern that the money might not be used as intended, the mayor's proposal includes establishment of a "dedicated fund so people will see the money go in and people will see the money go out for police work."

The new proposal would cost the average taxpayer $18 annually and put another 120 police officers on the street, Mr. Schmoke said.

Between November and last month, the city's crime problem was boldly dramatized. Last year, the city broke a 20-year homicide record, finishing 1992 with 335 murders. In the first quarter of this year, the murder rate was running ahead of that pace; among the victims was a nun murdered in her convent.

Open to persuasion

Two weeks after the piggyback increase proposal was introduced in the council, Mr. Schmoke is not only standing by it, but is also planning to push hard for its approval.

"I will be meeting with [council members] individually, and I think that I'll be able to persuade [the council] to go ahead and vote for this increase," he said recently.

Indeed, unlike last November, a near majority of the 19-member council appears open to persuasion -- by one side or the other. A handful of members are committed to the increase because of concerns about public safety; another group is opposed because of worries about higher taxes; the rest are undecided.

Councilwoman Sheila Dixon of the 4th District, which includes high crime areas, is among those who opposed the increase to 55 percent but who have yet to take a position on 52 percent. "Two percent is not 5 per

cent," said Ms. Dixon while noting that residents are already heavily taxed.

Ms. Dixon, a Democrat like the mayor and all her council colleagues, also recognizes the need for improved public safety. "The [council's] African-American Coalition has been going out to community forums. That's been the No. 1 issue that's come up," she said.

But she indicated that her support wouldn't come without "certain guarantees," including a commitment that any new officers hired would be required to live in the city.

Grand jury report

To other undecideds, key concerns are the management and finances of the Police Department. Several cited allegations in a recent

special grand jury report that the department misspent federal grant money earmarked for drug investigations.

"Just as there is a heightened concern about crime and murder, so there is a heightened demand about accountability and management," said Councilman Lawrence A. Bell of the 4th District, who has criticized Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods over the homicide rate.

"I have to see exactly how the money's going to be used and what efficiencies are going to be implemented," said 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham.

A city taxpayers' group notes that the Police Department budget grew from $169.1 million in 1990 to $190.2 million in 1993. "We want to know what happened to that money," said Daniel J. Loden, president of the Baltimore City Homeowners Coalition for Fair Property Taxes.

Briefing council

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