Holding the line on city taxes

April 12, 1994

Austerity is the word that describes Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's $2.2 billion budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

If his proposal is approved, the property tax rate would remain unchanged at $5.90 per each $100 of assessed value -- more than twice as high as any other Maryland jurisdiction. Unlike workers in most counties, city employees would not receive cost-of-living raises and some departments, including health and parks and recreation, would lose positions.

The key reason for this bare-bones budget is the continuing stagnation in Baltimore City's tax base. As a result of the recession, assessments for some residential and many downtown commercial properties have plummeted.

"It's been a very difficult budget because of the lack of revenue growth," observes budget chief Edward K. Gallagher. "The impact of the recession on our property tax base has really been felt."

Mayor Schmoke started the budget preparation, expecting to cut property taxes. He found that impossible. Instead, he chose to propose hiring 80 more police officers and 81 additional teachers.

The City Council is certain to disagree with the mayor's decision. It will attempt a budget cut to engineer some property tax relief. Next year, after all, will be time for re-election campaigns. A tax cut could be difficult to achieve, though.

We think the mayor is showing fiscal responsibility with his proposal. While many Baltimore City homeowners are irked by a high property rate, they generally accept it as part of the reality of living in the city. In the best of all possible worlds, they would welcome a tax cut. But if the choice is between a cosmetic cut or beefing up the police force and the school system, we think most would choose the latter.

Providing the police department and public schools with more staff and resources is particularly important now that both of those troubled agencies are improving. Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has started a long-overdue overhaul of the police department; Superintendent Walter G. Amprey is shaking up the school bureaucracy.

So many of the city's major costs are fixed that there is surprisingly little leeway within a seemingly huge $2.2 billion spending plan. The trick is to practice prudence without hurting services essential to city life. Improving public safety should be a major priority. It certainly is more important than a nominal tax cut for homeowners.

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