Calling the council's bluff in the fight over the city budget, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he will lower the property tax rate by at least a nickel and accused the council of forcing him to lay off city workers and make deep cuts in government services.
Schmoke's hard line is the latest maneuver in the tussle to balance the $2.4 billion city budget by chopping spending or raising the piggyback tax 10 percent. Schmoke wanted the tax, but City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III guided council approval of spending cuts at Monday's council meeting.
Bell had hoped to use $5.8 million in additional cuts as leverage to restore what Schmoke had sliced from the parks and recreation department and arts and cultural programs.
But Schmoke is refusing to negotiate and is following a strict reading of the City Charter that suggests the property tax revenue cannot exceed the cost of running Baltimore's government.
"Assuming the council affirms Thursday what they did Monday, city residents will see a property tax cut of at least 5 cents" per $100 of assessed value, Schmoke said yesterday. "I'm going to accept the cuts they made and then reduce the size of government. Layoff notices will go out Friday."
The council is scheduled to meet today to decide whether to make the leaner city budget final or back off and appease Schmoke by passing the piggyback tax increase he wants.
"I am hoping that council people will not cave in to the pressure that is being exerted on them from the mayor to raise the local income tax," Bell said yesterday. "No matter what happens [today], I feel good about what we have done at this point."
The likelihood of a reversal is unclear. Martin O'Malley, a Northeast Baltimore councilman, is refusing to let the piggyback tax bill out of his committee so that it can come to a vote.
The mayor "is angry right now. He needs to think about the kids instead of thinking about politics," O'Malley said yesterday. "I think it is really shameless to use kids like this to leverage a tax increase on a shrinking city. I think it would look very bad for all of city government for us to cut programs for children and knock cents off the property tax rate."
City residents pay property taxes of $5.85 per $100 of assessed value, the highest rate in the state. On a house assessed at $50,000, a 5-cent cut in the rate would lower taxes $75 a year.
Before the council met Monday, Schmoke warned members that he would not restore the 17 percent cut he has proposed in the recreation budget unless a tax increase was passed.
Bell and O'Malley thought the mayor was bluffing and would be willing to negotiate. They thought that if the council passed cuts in other areas of city government, the mayor would be willing to take the money saved and shift it to the recreation department.
Since Monday's session, Bell and O'Malley have been trying to meet with the mayor but have been rebuffed.
"I don't see any need for conversation," Schmoke said yesterday. "I tried to be very straightforward with them. The signal they are sending is they are voting against new taxes. It is time to implement" the council's agenda.
The City Charter allows the council to cut the mayor's proposed budget but not add to it. Only the mayor can restore spending cuts.
West Baltimore Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who wanted the council to pass the piggyback tax increase, said the blame lies with Bell and O'Malley.
"Whoever gets pink slips and they call me, I'm going to refer by name the council people who voted for the cuts," Dixon said yesterday. "This is going to impact people's lives."
Dixon said she would prefer that the mayor not cut the property tax and fund recreation centers that are under threat of being closed this year.
George Nilson, president of the Baltimore Homeowners' Coalition, said yesterday that his group would be willing to forgo a property tax cut if money could be restored to recreation centers.
"Those kinds of cuts were not the kinds of cuts that we advocated to either avoid increasing taxes or lowering taxes," Nilson said.
Schmoke said yesterday that because the council passed spending cuts and no new taxes, he doesn't have the power to restore to the recreation department the money saved by cuts at other agencies.
Bell disagreed, saying, "We've been upfront about what we want to do, and I believe our hands are clean. If he insists on raising the local income tax, I don't believe he can avoid the responsibility for it."
The city's $2.4 billion budget is for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The piggyback tax is the local levy based on a percentage of the state income tax.
Today's council session on the budget will begin at 5 p.m. at City Hall.
Pub Date: 6/12/97