The Baltimore City Council has endorsed more than $43 million in new or higher taxes on items including income and telephone lines, largely adopting a wrenching budget-balancing plan laid out by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The council cast key votes Monday evening in favor of a tax package designed mitigate a $121 million projected shortfall and avoid extensive layoffs of police officers and firefighters.
But with the next budget year about to start in about two weeks, a major issue is unresolved: the fate of the mayor's plan to impose a 4-cent tax on bottled beverages.
Opponents of the bottle tax, led by the beverage industry, thought they scored a victory when, in the face of a large advertising campaign, the council decided to set aside the proposal in May.
But as council members seek a final pot of money to stave off cuts, the bottle plan is bobbing to the surface again.
While nearly half of the 15-member council remains staunchly opposed to the tax, five members have pledged their support and a handful of others — enough to tip the balance — say they would back the tariff if its proceeds would be directed to initiatives they deem crucial, such as curtailing a daily rotation of fire company closings or reducing layoffs and furloughs of city workers.
Council members and administration officials are working behind the scenes to try to hammer out a deal on the $11 million bottle tax before a special emergency meeting Thursday.
Opponents of the tax — who include store owners fearful of losing shoppers to the counties — and its proponents— the members of AFSCME, the city's blue-collar union, who hope it will prevent layoffs — held rallies Monday and lobbied council members on the issue.
Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who as floor leader is charged with pushing the mayor's initiatives, said he was meeting with colleagues to work out a deal to use the bottle tax to preserve jobs.
Although Rawlings-Blake asked the council months ago to approve $50 million in taxes and fees, she did not provide details at the time on how to use the last $8.5 million, saying she wanted to negotiate with the council.
But Monday, the administration handed out a list of about $9 million in funding that could be restored with the proceeds of the bottle tax. The plan would save 71 jobs, including 27 street sweepers and 20 horticulture and urban forestry workers with the Recreation and Parks Department.
The administration also suggested using the funds to prevent one daily closure of a fire company, to restore matching funds for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, which runs courses and farming programs, and fully restore a school-based health services program.
If the administration succeeds in swaying enough council members, the bottle tax could appear on the agenda as soon as Thursday.
Councilman Warren Branch, who worked for the city's Public Works Department for 23 years, said he would vote for the tax if it would prevent layoffs.
The layoffs would affect "many people I used to work with" said Branch.
Glenn Middleton, the head of AFSCME and husband of Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, sat behind Branch at the evening meeting, chatting with him in hushed tones. Afterwards, lobbyists hired by the foes of the bottle tax surrounded Branch, pulling him into another conversation.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Councilman Carl Stokes have also said they are open to negotiation on the bottle tax. Clarke said she could back the tax if the proceeds were applied to "urgent needs," including reducing the number of fire companies closed on a daily rotation, and Stokes said he would like to use the funds to reduce furlough days and layoffs.
But their colleagues, including Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, chairwoman of the taxation and finance committee, remain firmly opposed.
"I have heard very clearly from my residents in my district," said Holton.
Councilman James Kraft also said he would not support any other taxes.
"I'm done," said Kraft, pointing out that the $43 million in new revenue would more than cover the $41.5 million needed to restore essential services as detailed by Rawlings-Blake in a letter to the council laying out her revenue plan.
As debate continued over the budget for the coming fiscal year, a move to close a shortfall for the current year went largely unnoticed Monday.
The administration asked for the council's approval to move nearly $90 million from surplus and reserve accounts and the city's "rainy day" fund to patch a hole in the current budget and cover about $33 million in expenses from the pair of snowstorms that walloped the city in February.
While city officials hope to recoup as much as 75 percent of that from the federal government, no funds have been obtained so far, said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.