City's Next Mission: Cut Taxes

June 30, 1993

Baltimore's city charter bestows the mayor with mighty powers. When the mayor wants to have his will done, he usually can find a way.

The exceptional budget melodrama that ended Monday is a case in point.

For the first time in nine decades, the City Council's budget was stopped by a veto from the chief executive, who felt his priorities had not been followed. Such an expression of decisiveness -- combined with much lobbying -- was enough to persuade the council to change its stand and go the mayor's way.

Politics is a strange game of fleeting impressions. The budget victory has suddenly made Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke look considerably stronger than he seemed just a fortnight ago.

In contrast, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who gambled and lost, suddenly appears disheveled. The nine council members who on June 17 voted with Ms. Clarke and 11 days later deserted her look rather silly. The best they can do to explain their 180-degree turn is to claim they did not understand the budget they were voting on. (Shed no tears. Being politicians, the council members will quickly recover).

The bottom line of the city's new $2 billion budget is that it provides money to hire 60 more police officers while maintaining the current property tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value. This levy -- twice as high as any other Maryland jurisdiction -- clearly is a problem that has to be addressed in future years. But the mayor felt that the city's law-enforcement needs were more important this year than a cosmetic tax cut.

This, we are convinced, was the proper order of priorities.

The next order of business, clearly, is to look at ways to lower the city's exorbitant tax rate. That burden, along with the sky-high premiums city residents pay on automobile insurance, are among the reasons the middle-class exodus to the suburbs continues, robbing Baltimore of its tax base and creating an impression of abandonment.

Several options that would produce meaningful cuts in the tax rate are now being considered. Mayor Schmoke is talking about turning garbage collection into a separate paid service. That could reduce the property tax rate by up to 40 cents, though it would not produce any relief in the total taxes imposed on city homeowners. City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, in turn, is lobbying for an asset management system which, she says, could save the city $12 million a year just by altering the way municipal buildings are run.

These are promising ideas that deserve to be fully aired and explored.

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