Mayor Schmoke backs off on piggyback increase Council wants to see alternatives

June 15, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

For the second time in six months, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is backing off plans to raise the piggyback income tax in the face of opposition from City Council members who don't want to increase taxes to pay for more police officers.

During a rare breakfast meeting with the council yesterday, Mr. Schmoke proposed alternative revenue-raising measures -- using part of a surplus in the police and fire retirement systems and closing loopholes in disposal fees charged to waste and recycling firms.

Mr. Schmoke insisted yesterday that the proposed piggyback tax was "clearly not dead" and that he was not withdrawing the bill from consideration, but merely responding to requests that he provide the council with alternatives.

"I think the council wants more police officers. They are strongly in support of that. But they have heard from taxpayers who have said if there is any way of raising money other than raising the piggyback, use that option first," Mr. Schmoke said.

"It's very clear it's the least favored option. But it is clearly not dead," he added.

But some council members felt the piggyback increase had virtually no chance of getting the necessary 10-vote majority -- and said that feeling was clearly communicated to Mr. Schmoke yesterday morning.

"It doesn't appear the votes are there for the piggyback," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, a vocal opponent of the tax increase. "The sentiment in the room [where the breakfast meeting was held] was that the piggyback would not even come out of committee."

If, as now seems all but certain, the proposed piggyback increase does not come up for a council vote, it would mark the second time in six months that an administration proposal to raise the tax had failed to get out of committee.

In December Mr. Schmoke withdrew a proposal to raise the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 55 percent two weeks after it was introduced and encountered vehement council opposition. On March 25, Mr. Schmoke made his latest proposal to increase the tax from 50 percent to 52 percent after a rash of homicides in the city, including the murder of a nun in her convent.

He said at the time that he felt there was a majority 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."

But yesterday, Mr. Schmoke conceded that an increase in the piggyback tax -- a calculated percentage of the state income tax -- was the "least favored" option among council members for vTC raising $3.8 million to pay for 120 police officers.

An increase in the tax would cost the average taxpayer $18 a year, according to estimates by city finance officials.

Mr. Schmoke's last-minute package came just eight days before the council is to adjourn for the summer recess.

Together, he said, the proposals would generate about the same amount of revenue as his proposed piggyback tax increase, and meet his criteria for being "predictable and recurring" sources of revenue.

Under the proposals, Mr. Schmoke said, the city could save $2.5 million by using a portion of a surplus in the police and fire retirement system. He said the surplus came about because the city had been assessed funds based on anticipated salary increases that were never put into effect.

Employee contributions to the system would be reduced from 7 percent to 6 percent, rather than 7 percent to 5 percent, under the proposal, Mr. Schmoke said.

Closing the loopholes in waste-disposal fees would generate about $1.3 million a year, he said. The administration has dropped a proposal to increase those fees from $7.50 to $10 a ton, Mr. Schmoke said.

Mr. DiBlasi said he would back the alternative measures, though he said he expected some council members to try to use the added money to slash another nickel off the city's property tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value. The rate is the highest in the state.

The mayor said yesterday that he knew getting enough votes to pass the piggyback was "going to be difficult," but he denied that the apparent failure to do so was a political defeat.

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