Council reacts to overspending

Members also voice frustration over the pace of property tax reductions in the city


Several Baltimore City Council members expressed frustration yesterday with the O'Malley administration's overspending and the pace of property tax reduction, issues that also concerned residents who turned out last night for their say in the budget process.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's finance officials presented an overview of the administration's $2.4 billion budget and its 2-cent property tax rate cut at a council hearing yesterday, the first of several sessions this month examining the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

But council members were more interested in the $18 million that the administration said it needs to cover overspending in the current fiscal year. The money, which the administration requested through several bills introduced to the council last night, will cover cost overruns mostly in the police and fire departments.

Council President Sheila Dixon said she was troubled that every year the Baltimore Police Department needs more money to cover overspending. This year, the department has requested $13.4 million, mostly for overtime.

"It's a major amount, and we're not seeing results," Dixon said. "It's disheartening to see these huge amounts accumulate."

Dixon said the city should be spending more money on addiction treatment to counter the drugs that fuel the city's crime.

Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director, said he believes the city is "getting our money's worth with the police."

"The police are doing an effective job," Wacks said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said using overtime to enhance police coverage of troubled areas exhausts officers and renders them less effective.

"How much can anyone work?" Clarke asked.

Councilmen Edward L. Reisinger and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said the Police Department should better manage its resources.

Reisinger also said he believes budget officials are being too conservative in their revenue projections. He said the city should be able to provide a bigger tax cut because it was able to allocate the current fiscal year's projected $60.6 million surplus to various projects.

"We seem to find money for supplementals, but we can't find money for the taxpayer," he said.

The proposed budget calls for the second in a planned series of five annual 2-cent cuts to the city's property tax rate, which would save $30 for the owner of a home assessed at $150,000.

The city's tax rate is the highest in the state, at $2.308 per $100 of assessed value. The budget, which is 3.4 percent higher than the current year, calls for reducing the rate to $2.288.

However, many homeowners will still pay considerably more in property taxes this year than in the past because their assessments have increased.

Reisinger co-sponsored a bill introduced last night by Councilman James B. Kraft that calls for a steeper cut in the property tax rate. The bill, which would cut the rate by 11 cents - or about $220 each year for a $200,000 home - relies on a continuation of the rosy tax collections the city has experienced in recent years.

Wacks advised against the measure yesterday, saying it would require the council to cut $25 million from the proposed budget.

"We think it's bad fiscal policy," Wacks said of the proposal, which was assigned to a committee for further study.

Nearly 100 residents attended a taxpayers forum last night at the War Memorial Building to offer their opinions on the budget. Nearly half came in support of the Safe & Sound Campaign's request for $5.4 million for after-school and other education programs.

"Cut the check," said Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the campaign, repeating a slogan written on signs waved by the group's members. "When you have opportunity, life does turn out better."

In addition, members of the Baltimore TEA Party, a nonprofit organization seeking property tax reductions, criticized the administration's 10-cent tax cut over five years as ineffective and said homeowners eventually will leave unless they receive more aggressive relief.

"We'd like to get as large a reduction as we can get," said Bernice Winston, a member of the group.

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