Mayor makes pitch for rise in income tax Piggyback levy boost city's only hope after slots killed, he says

Warning of 'severe' cuts

Schmoke says funds needed to keep life in Baltimore 'attractive'

April 18, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Making his first public pitch for his proposed tax increase, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he sees no other way to get money for services important to the city's quality of life.

Mr. Schmoke said that he had supported putting slot machines at race tracks because of the potential revenue for the city. But when the state legislature killed the idea last month, he said he didn't have "any other option" other than a tax increase.

"I hope as the weeks go by and people consider it, they will recognize that there's sometimes a need to raise some revenues if we're going to keep our services at a level that will make life attractive in the city," the mayor said at an impromptu news conference.

He is proposing to raise the city's piggyback income tax -- a percentage of the state income tax -- from 50 percent to 55 percent.

The proposal, part of the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that was released officially yesterday, needs approval of a majority of the City Council. It would take effect Jan. 1 and would raise $4.9 million in its first six months.

The money from the increase would go to fund seven city agencies. Three of them -- the Baltimore Museum of Art, Enoch Pratt Free Library and Department of Parks and Recreation -- are slated for sizable cuts if the increase is not approved.

Yesterday, representatives of those agencies described such cuts as "severe" and "horrendous."

Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Alma Bell said that department would have to close "somewhere in the range of 20" of 69 community centers if the agency were required to absorb a cut of $5.3 million.

Operations at the city's 23 pools could also be affected. "It is possible some of the pools would not open," she said.

A reduction of $1.3 million in the Pratt's budget would result in the closing of eight to 10 branches and "a major diminution in services," said Robert S. Hillman, president of the library's trustees.

Passage of the tax increase would give the library an additional $1.5 million -- enough money to avoid branch closings or keep them to a minimum -- but would still be $1.5 million short of the library's request, Mr. Hillman said.

"It doesn't totally cripple us. It only partially maims us," he said of the Pratt's proposed funding.

The museum's loss of $471,000 -- or 16 percent of its city support -- would result in the elimination of certain services or across-the-board cuts, said Director Arnold Lehman. The museum, already closed Mondays and Tuesdays to save money, "would try to avoid at all costs" closing another day, he said.

"We have tried to avoid looking at what we view as a catastrophic situation," he said.

The city prosecutor's office would lose $458,000, or 4 percent of its city funding, without money from the tax increase. Patricia Jessamy, the city state's attorney, said the cuts would force her to lay off workers when the caseload is increasing. "It would be devastating," she said.

During the release of the fiscal 1997 budget at yesterday's weekly meeting of the Board of Estimates, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge complained that the tax increase was being proposed with the budget. They said that the council should have had the chance to act on the increase first, then a budget should have been written based on their action.

"We're put in kind of a spot," Mr. Bell said of the council. But he added, "We're going to look at all the pros and cons."

But Mr. Schmoke said he linked his tax proposal to the budget for a reason. "I think it's going to make for a more realistic debate. People will understand the consequences," he said.

Mr. Schmoke also sharply criticized another council member, John L. Cain of the 1st District, who suggested Tuesday that the mayor cut his staff rather than seek a tax increase. "It sounds good, but it's [a] fiscally irresponsible" statement by Mr. Cain, the mayor said.

Also yesterday, the board delayed for a week approving a 19 percent increase in the city's water and sewer rates after several residents complained the increase was too high. The increase, the first in four years, would raise the quarterly bill for an average city household by $14.59, from the current $76.79.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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