City tax talk premature Higher piggyback: Baltimore residents still waiting for more government streamlining.

February 02, 1997

FOURTH DISTRICT Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. appears to be testing the waters for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke by proposing a 2 percent increase in Baltimore's piggyback income tax rate. The proposal is modest in comparison to the 10 percent increase the mayor failed to get last year. But while this dog may be smaller, it still won't hunt. It is a bad idea for the same reason the larger tax hike was rejected in 1996: Arguments that it is the best option aren't convincing.

Mr. Mitchell proposes the $2.2 million that might be generated by raising the piggyback tax from 50 to 51 percent be used to hire more police officers and expand the state's attorney's office. Those are worthwhile endeavors. Baltimore has not had the dramatic decrease in violent crime some cities are enjoying. The local criminal justice system must be improved to keep the felons who commit the most crimes off the street. But before raising taxes to fight crime, other budget economies must be made.

Steps already taken are appreciated. Mr. Schmoke has cut nearly 5,000 jobs since he became mayor 10 years ago, including about 1,000 people who took advantage of an early retirement program that he and Council President Lawrence A. Bell III developed last year. And this year, for the first time, Mr. Schmoke has ordered three departments to cut their budgets to provide more money for drug treatment. Much of the crime in Baltimore is related to drug abuse. However, that is only part of the budget reassessment that should be made.

Baltimore's population has dropped from nearly a million people to 700,000 since the end of World War II. City government is smaller, too, but not small enough. While the criminal justice system may warrant expansion, there are other areas where the city can spend less. That can best be determined through a comprehensive, department-by-department evaluation involving cost-savings consultants from outside government.

Such study should occur outside the typically emotional and hectic budget-writing process. It will always be difficult to cut or eliminate functions of city government that the public is accustomed to. But people will accept those decisions if there is clear evidence that they represent the best alternatives to improve Baltimore's quality of life without raising taxes.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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