Council increases tax on parking $7.4 million in cuts, amusement tax also get preliminary OK

June 07, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Buckling under pressure from the mayor to support a new tax, the Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval last night to a measure that will cost city parking garage users more money to work and shop downtown.

During the special meeting, the council voted to increase the city tax on parking lots and garages by an average of 8 percent -- less than half of what Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had sought.

The council also gave preliminary approval to an amusement tax on pinball and video game operations. Combined, the measures taking effect in August are expected to produce about $2.8 million in revenue in the next fiscal year.

The council also approved $7.4 million in cuts from the Schmoke administration's $2.3 billion budget -- with a large portion trimmed from a rainy-day fund and the city's self-insurance fund.

Some council members said that the tax increases are being imposed on businesses and the public not out of fiscal necessity but to appease the mayor.

"The reality of it [the parking garage tax] is that the mayor wanted to raise taxes," said 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. "Politically, we need it for the mayor to save face."

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said that raising taxes was a "substantive compromise" and a "win-win" situation.

Schmoke has been pushing for a tax increase for weeks and refused to restore cuts he made to pet council projects unless its members agreed.

The majority of council members have been reluctant to pass a new tax and instead wanted to rely solely on cuts. The mayor has stood firm that mere cuts won't pass muster.

Spearheaded by Bell, the council wants to restore $4.9 million in budget cuts, including reductions of $3 million to the Department of Recreation and Parks, $300,000 for cultural programs and another $300,000 in art scholarships.

The City Charter allows the council to cut the mayor's budget proposal but not add to it. Only the mayor can make restorations.

There was some question last night among the mayor's council liaisons and council members whether that would happen.

Schmoke lobbied for a combination 19 percent parking tax increase and 5 percent income tax increase to cover a $4.9 million budget gap if he were to restore previously cut programs.

But since the council passed a modest tax increase bolstered by cuts, no one is sure of the mayor's response.

tTC The mayor is in Turkey attending a United Nations conference on cities. He is expected to return by tomorrow.

Last night, council members and mayoral representatives battled over the ramifications of the council's actions.

"We can't say with a certainty just what this is going to do," said Vera P. Hall, the mayor's top council liaison.

By the time the council convenes Monday to vote on final approval of last night's action, the mayor will have had time to make any decisions, she said.

Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who lobbied for the mayor's proposed 19 percent parking garage tax, felt the council didn't go far enough.

"I don't see [Schmoke] restoring everything based on what we have done," Dixon said.

But 5th District Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said the mayor will have to answer to city residents if he doesn't use the money council members trimmed from the budget to restore his proposed cuts in city services.

"We gave him revenue enhancements like he asked," she said. "I think the ball is now in his court."

The debate over how to balance the city's $2.3 billion budget began about six weeks ago when the mayor proposed a 10 percent increase in the income tax to cover an expected $4.6 million shortfall.

But Schmoke's proposal was almost universally criticized by city residents and council members. That discontent caused the council to split into two factions -- one side willing to support another type of tax, and the other wanting to balance the budget with cuts.

The amusement tax would add a 10 percent levy on gross receipts for arcade-type machines. The parking tax would rise from $12 to $13 for monthly parkers, and fees for daily parking would rise from 45 cents to 60 cents.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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