Council is given low marks Mayor distances self from criticisms leveled by his former liaison

Analysis rankles some

Report says votes fall along racial lines, budget not understood

September 27, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Council members fail to understand the city budget and traditionally vote in racial blocks.

No, that analysis was not made by an angry constituent, but by the former council liaison to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Former Northeast Baltimore Councilwoman Vera P. Hall issued the report card in July while the 19-member council was in summer recess. The council returns to work tomorrow night.

The 52-page analysis -- which the mayor requires annually from staff directors -- is brimming with frustration over the city's legislative processes.

Hall, a longtime Schmoke ally, had served as his council liaison since the mayor was elected to his third term in 1995.

Her report included updates on 736 council actions, from resolutions celebrating citizen birthdays to an analysis of last year's controversial vote on a medical waste incinerator.

Hall's interpretation angered City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who defeated the former 5th District councilwoman in 1995. Bell defended the city's legislative chamber, criticizing Hall for exaggerating the state of the city budget and "playing the race issue."

"It's totally salacious and untrue," Bell said of the assertions made in Hall's report.

Meanwhile, Schmoke distanced himself from the report last week.

"It is not my assessment of the council, and I did not disseminate it to my staff," the mayor said.

In addition, Hall is no longer council liaison. She now heads a new project for Schmoke monitoring city government efficiency. The mayor said the change was unrelated to Hall's council report.

Budget woes

Council members adjourned in June after providing a last-minute 3-cent tax cut that saved $6 for the average city property owner.

Schmoke and Hall warned council members not to make the tax cut in the face of a city budget deficit that could reach $50 million during the next two years. City spending is rising twice as fast as government income.

"The political perception: All is well, the citizens got a tax break," Hall wrote in her July report. "The reality is THERE IS A STRUCTURAL DEFICIT!!"

The tax break becomes critical because city income is expected to grow 1 percent each year, while spending is expected to rise by 2.5 percent to 4 percent. A strong economy injected an extra $60 million into the city's coffers this year, but Schmoke and his administrators have warned that the council shouldn't bank on continued increased revenue.

Hall noted that, despite the prospect of budget troubles, Bell pushed to allocate more money for drug treatment and recreation.

"He seemed not to understand or accept the impact of where the money came from to balance the budget," Hall said. "When the leadership of council is erratic and unstable, solid discussions of things like structural budget deficits, performance assessments and rating agency reports do not occur."

Bell, however, paints the administration as crying wolf.

"I don't agree that there is a structural deficit," Bell said. "I will concede that the economy will not always be good, but the administration uses those additional dollars to do a lot of things."

He also noted that Schmoke's council allies supported the 3-cent tax cut.

They can't agree

Hall's analysis spells out what Monday night council viewers see every week: a chronic inability by the administration and council to agree on any major issue despite staggering city problems -- 300 homicides a year, nearly one in 10 residents addicted to drugs, and seven in 10 babies being born to unwed mothers.

In the 10 months leading up to next year's mayoral race, three issues seem to be at the top of the council's list:

Adult entertainment and night life. A bill from earlier in the year would shift responsibility for regulating Baltimore's infamous strip clubs along the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. -- known as The Block -- from the city Housing Department to the Baltimore Liquor Board of Commissioners. A separate bill being discussed would allow bars in the city to stay open past the current 2 a.m. curfew in order to enhance tourism.

Urban renewal. Downtown business leaders have unveiled a plan to renovate the west side of downtown, pledging a $350 million face lift. A cornerstone of the proposal requires the council to approve bills giving the city the right to condemn downtown businesses and properties that would then be offered to developers. A sticking point in the legislation could be the extent of city tax breaks offered to new developers. Last year, the council's most contentious issue involved giving a $25 million tax break to a new Wyndham Hotel at Inner Harbor East.

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