Despite defeats before council, mayor still seeks more police

June 20, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

It was Black Thursday for the administration of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

In the space of a few short hours Thursday evening, the City Council dealt the mayor a series of stinging budgetary defeats.

Not only did the council fail to consider a piggyback income tax increase Mayor Schmoke had proposed to generate funds to put more police officers on the street, effectively killing the measure, but it also failed to take up part of a package of alternative revenue-raisers the mayor had suggested just three days before, and passed the other part in a way Mr. Schmoke said he would veto.

Finally, adding insult to injury, the council shaved a nickel off the city's property tax rate -- over the mayor's explicit objections.

In a one-paragraph statement issued Friday in response to the council's action, Mr. Schmoke indicated he was determined to put more police officers on the street.

"Citizens know that in order to enhance police protection, you have to add to the budget, not subtract from the budget," the mayor said. "My priority today remains putting more police on the street. . . . I am going to make the necessary hard choices that will result in increased spending on the police department."

Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman, said late Friday that the mayor would not elaborate on his statement until this week. But he noted that final approval of the budget would not come until the council's final meeting tomorrow before its summer recess and said, "A lot of things can happen between now and Monday night."

What happened Thursday is clear. Why it happened requires an understanding of the relationship between the mayor's office and a council that only occasionally flexes its collective muscle.

Conversations last week with council members on both sides of Mr. Schmoke's budget proposals point to shortcomings in the administration's lobbying efforts.

Beyond that, there is a sharp divergence of opinion on why the mayor was rebuked so soundly. Those who opposed the mayor's proposals point with pride to renewed assertiveness on the part of the council, which for years was derided for doing little more than rubber-stamping the initiatives of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Those who supported Mr. Schmoke say the council acted with typical shortsightedness, with members putting concerns for their next election beyond the long-term good of the city.

Some even question whether the mayor is more concerned with his potential 1994 gubernatorial campaign than he is in ensuring his bills get through the council.

Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, chairman of the council's taxation and finance committee, said flatly that the mayor's staff failed to communicate properly with the council on the budget and tax proposals.

"The staff was presumptuous in thinking that everything the mayor wanted would be adopted in the fashion he wanted," the 6th District Democrat said.

It was in Mr. Murphy's committee that the proposed increase in the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 52 percent and a bill to close loopholes in waste disposal fees that were part of the mayor's alternative package were kept bottled up Thursday night. It was also Mr. Murphy's committee that reported out the other part of the package -- a fire and police retirement bill that would use part of the retirement fund's surplus to reduce the city's contribution by $2.5 million. The so-called "F&P" bill was adopted. But it was approved in a form the mayor said he would veto.

"I did not know anyone took issue with any version of the [fire and police] bill until Thursday afternoon," said Mr. Murphy. "No one spoke to me about any dissatisfaction."

Mr. Schmoke had said in his written budget message to the council last month that it was "simply not possible" to reduce the property rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value and maintain a 4 percent cap on assessments. But Mr. Murphy said that message was never reinforced.

"I don't believe the council was lobbied regarding the sanctity of the $5.90 tax rate," Mr. Murphy said. "I have to assume the administration assumed we would make no adjustment in the rate."

In light of that failing, Mr. Murphy says it is fair to question why Mr. Schmoke made a political foray to Salisbury on the eve of the day the council took up his ill-fated budget package. "He should be minding the store if his staff is not serving him well," Mr. Murphy said.

Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, a 5th District Democrat who supported the mayor's budget proposals, agreed Mr. Schmoke's staff did not push hard enough for his position.

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat who introduced the amendment to cut the property tax rate to $5.85, faulted Mr. Schmoke as well as his staff.

"Lobby? He doesn't lobby," Mr. Ambridge said of the mayor. "He puts out a proposal, and then he can't understand why anyone would oppose it. He doesn't share information or victories. His management style is very isolated. Meters have to be fed. The mayor doesn't feed the meter."

Mr. Ambridge said a rare breakfast meeting the mayor had with members of the council Monday to propose alternatives to the piggyback was a case of too little, too late.

To some, Thursday's actions were less a defeat for the mayor than a victory for the council.

"Council muscle!" exulted first-term Councilman John L. Cain, a 1st District Democrat, after the meeting.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who opposed the piggyback increase and orchestrated the property tax cut and who often is at odds with the mayor, was careful not to gloat. "I think it was a victory for the city. The legislative branch put all the pieces together," she said.

"It was a bad night for the city," said Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, the mayor's floor leader.

Ms. Hall said council members "reneged" on an agreement with the mayor to approve the waste disposal and the fire and police retirement bills as an alternative to the piggyback increase.

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