Schmoke's tax bind Few options: Even raising piggyback income tax 10 percent won't stem budget cuts.

April 18, 1996

WHILE CITY COUNCIL leaders bickered yesterday with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke over a technicality in his plan to raise the city piggyback income tax by 10 percent, they ignored the most crucial point: Even with this extra money, services such as libraries, parks and rec centers will receive less than this year. These are tough times for Baltimore City and council members will be hard pressed to avoid a tax hike.

True, the mayor has put the council in a corner by incorporating the tax increase into his budget proposal for fiscal 1997. That means the council would have to cut the mayor's budget by $4.9 million if it wants to reject the higher levy. Given reductions already imposed on agencies by Mr. Schmoke, that task would be filled with political land mines.

Look at the plight of the Pratt Library and the Department of Recreation and Parks. The mayor's budget includes $15.7 million for the library -- $1 million less than this fiscal year. Yet without the tax increase, the Pratt's reduction would be $2 million; branches would have to close. As for the city's rec centers and parks, even with the tax increase the agency's budget took a 17 percent cut, to $27.3 million. Plans are being made for Police Athletic League programs to help fill the breach, but some rec centers may shut down. Which other centers does the council wish to close?

Baltimore is in desperate straits. Mr. Schmoke had better relay that fact to critical council members. And if he expects public support, he must explain what he has already done to cut expenses.

One avenue Mr. Schmoke has not explored is a top-to-bottom audit of city government by an outside panel. Business leaders with a stake in the city would be ideal candidates for this panel. The mayor needs to demonstrate a commitment to shrink the size of government so it is not such a heavy burden on local taxpayers. A detailed study -- with the strong support of the mayor and council leaders -- could pinpoint ways to moderate the city's property tax and even its piggyback tax in the years ahead.

Given the changing political climate, this city can no longer depend so heavily on the benevolence of state and federal government. More than 35 percent of its operating budget comes from these sources. And Baltimore can't wait for salvation by slot machines or casinos that would prove so destructive in other ways. It's time for the city to show what it can do for itself -- to regenerate its economy, slim down local government and bring spending into line with a responsible level of taxation. It is Mr. Schmoke's job to provide strong direction, and for the City Council to keep him on track.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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