Annapolis aldermen slammed Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins yesterday for keeping secret a tax increase for city property owners, although he knew about the proposal weeks before it was announced.
But Hopkins indicated to the city council that a tax increase was imminent more than three weeks before County Executive John G. Gary proposed it May 1 as part of his budget, according to a report available to the public.
The revelation is the second in as many days, undermining recent statements made by Annapolis elected officials that the tax increase came as a surprise. Along with the disclosure came descriptions of a city administration consumed by recriminations and confusion.
One alderman described Annapolis as "a boat without a rudder, floating around on the Chesapeake." Another said the mayor was "extremely embarrassed."
"We not only don't know what the mission is, but I don't think we have a mission," said M. Theresa DeGraff, a Ward 7 Republican. "You can either pull your hair out, or you can say this is what we have and do the best we can until the next election."
The mayor alluded to the tax increase in his 1996 "State of the City" report, a summary of next year's city budget released on April 8. Asked yesterday about the information, Hopkins said: "I guess I did include it. I'd have to see the document."
Several aldermen said yesterday they had not reviewed the 43-page report, which outlines $40.3 million in city spending for the next fiscal year. "It's not something I focused on," said Alderman Dean L. Johnson, a Ward 2 independent. "I don't recall reading it."
Reference to the proposed property tax increase -- ranging from 1 to 9 cents per $100 of assessed value -- appeared on page jTC three under the heading: "Operating Budget Highlights."
"I wouldn't say I read every word," said Shepard Tullier, a Ward 4 Democrat. "I don't remember [the mayor] bringing anyone's attention to it."
Said DeGraff: "I haven't even read that yet. It's in the trunk of my car."
The disclosure also undercuts the city's planned legal claim that Anne Arundel officials failed to negotiate the rate increase before it was publicly proposed. The council had three weeks to discuss the tax increase with the Gary administration after the mayor released his report.
Gary unveiled his budget more than six weeks after he met with Hopkins in his office suite to discuss eight items of city-county interest. The possibility of a tax-rate increase was one of those items, according to the March 13 memo written by Gary's chief of staff, Sam Minnitte.
Hopkins did not tell council members about that two-hour meeting before they voted unanimously Monday night to file suit against Anne Arundel County, seeking to block the proposed tax increase. The mayor argued strongly in favor of the lawsuit, according to interviews with aldermen.
Yesterday, council members criticized the mayor for not briefing them on the discussion, which also included a proposal to trade the $3 million Eisenhower Golf Course to the county in exchange for a former school on Green Street.
"There were some major budgetary and legislative decisions that the council was not made a part of," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a Ward 5 Democrat. "I think the mayor made a mistake, there is no question about that. What the [memo] frankly reveals was that a majority of city council was not in the loop."
The Annapolis tax increase would bring Anne Arundel $760,000 a year, which county officials have said will help offset some of the cost of providing public services to city residents, including education, health services and waste disposal. It is being reviewed by the County Council.
On Monday, a letter signed by the mayor and city council will be sent to 34,000 Annapolis residents urging them to write to the County Council opposing the tax boost. If approved, the rate increase will add $61 to the annual property tax bill of the average Annapolis homeowner.
Snowden said the city would proceed with its legal strategy, despite disclosures that the tax increase did not come as a surprise. He maintained that the Gary administration did not negotiate the proposed 8-cent rate increase in "good faith."
"Not withstanding the alleged negotiations, a majority of the city council is adamantly opposed to a tax increase for Annapolis taxpayers," Snowden said. "We will continue to fight the tax by all means at our disposal."
Hopkins said yesterday his meeting with Gary was more a lecture than a negotiation. "We have never discussed the tax differential," he said. "He has told me what he was going to do, but we have never discussed it.
"I've served with every county executive this county has had," said Hopkins, who has been a member of the Annapolis city council since 1961. "I can tell you this. All the others were much more cooperative. They were always willing to discuss things."
But letters between top city and county officials reveal a more cordial relationship before the March 13 meeting.