5-cent cut in city tax rate on its way City Council sinks Schmoke efforts to raise $4 million for police patrols

June 18, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Seeking to provide relief to overburdened Baltimore homeowners, the City Council gave preliminary approval last night to a nickel cut in the city's property tax rate.

The council's action would lower the Baltimore property tax rate -- the highest by far in the state -- from $5.90 to $5.85 per $100 of assessed value.

A homeowner with an assessed value of $40,000 -- the city average -- would pay $20 less a year.

The final vote on the property tax cut is scheduled for Monday's council meeting, the last one before summer recess. Approval is considered a virtual certainty.

Also last night, the City Council failed to bring to a vote Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal to raise $4 million to pay for 120 additional police officers by raising the piggyback income tax from 50 percent to 52 percent, effectively dooming the measure.

The council also failed to consider a key part of a package of alternative proposals to pay for the officers that the mayor had presented to council members on Monday. And it passed the second part of the package in a form Mr. Schmoke is promising to veto -- raising questions about whether there will be enough money in the budget to put the additional officers on the street. Both the mayor and the council say the officers are needed.

The nickel cut in the property tax rate would cost the city an estimated $4 million in revenue in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

To make up for the loss, the council cut a wide range of capital, or construction, proposals, including $900,000 for economic development projects; $100,000 to improve library technology; and $100,000 each for the renovations of police stations and a third-floor print room at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Council members said they hoped that the money could be replaced with $4 million from the city's sale of the Colt complex at Owings Mills in Baltimore County -- money that had been earmarked for the renovation of police headquarters on Fayette Street.

The approval of the nickel reduction in the property tax rate came by voice vote. But the vote on the package of capital cuts that made the property tax reduction possible came on a hefty 14-5 vote.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke noted after the vote that, before the recession of the past two years, the council had been cutting the property tax annually as part of a long-range plan to reduce the rate to no more than 150 percent of the $2.865 rate in Baltimore County.

"We've got to get back on track -- and we are," Ms. Clarke declared. "We're going to cut the property tax down until we get it where we need it to be."

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, who introduced the motion to cut the tax rate, noted that the city's tax base was stagnant.

"Why? Perhaps because our tax rate is two times that of any other jurisdiction," he said.

Opponents of the property tax cut said the city needed the money for public safety.

Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, said he was in favor of the capital cuts but said he wanted the money used to hire more police rather than trim the property tax.

And Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th, said she was voting against the cut not because she didn't want to reduce the property tax but because she was concerned that "those who are living in those properties can live in them safely."

In failing to bring the piggyback tax increase up for a vote last night, the council effectively killed a measure Mr. Schmoke proposed in March to raise $4 million a year to put another 120 police officers on the street.

The proposal could theoretically be brought up at Monday's final council meeting, but to do so would require a two-thirds majority -- something both supporters and opponents say is impossible.

The council also did not bring up for a vote an administration proposal to close loopholes in waste disposal fees that would generate $1.3 million -- part of the revenue-raising package Mr. Schmoke offered the council Monday as an alternative to the piggyback tax.

Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, chairman of the tax and finance committee, said the waste bill was "badly drafted."

The council did pass the other part of the package -- a police and firefighter retirement bill that would use part of the retirement fund's surplus to reduce the city's contribution by $2.5 million a year. But Peter N. Marudas, the mayor's legislative liaison, said Mr. Schmoke would not sign the bill because it included provisions for changes in benefits to retirees and their widows.

He said the mayor wanted to consider the benefits portion of the retirement bill in the fall to give officials time to study its financial implications.

Because of the council's actions, Mr. Marudas said, "There won't be any money in the budget for additional police. The council did not provide any money for public safety."

But Council President Clarke, noting that the Police Department recently spent $2 million on high-tech equipment, said, "We've got enough money to do whatever they want to do in the Police Department."

Police Department officials have said their expenditures for more sophisticated technology will free up thousands of man-hours that could be used to have officers patrol the streets.

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