Soda tax

Speaking outside Johnston Square Elementary School, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announces her plans for using bottle-tax revenues to improve city schools. With her on the right are City Council member Mary Pat Clarke and Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso, far right. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun / November 14, 2011)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake visited a dilapidated East Baltimore elementary school Monday to call on the City Council to adopt her plan to raise the city's bottle tax to help pay for a major school renovation program.

"We have reached a breaking point, and it is time to act now," Rawlings-Blake said. "I call on my colleagues in the council to stand up for our children against the lobbyists and the special interests."

Rawlings-Blake, standing in a pocked courtyard at Johnston Square Elementary, urged the council to act quickly to increase the bottle tax from 2 cents to 5 cents as part of a three-pronged plan that would allow the school system to float more than $300 million in bonds. A 2010 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that the schools need $2.8 billion in work.

Children pressed their faces against yellowed, hazy windows in the school's cafeteria to watch the officials speak.

"I don't think it's right for the kids to be sitting in classrooms that have no light coming through," said schools chief Andrés Alonso, who praised Rawlings-Blake for demanding the funding.

"The kids don't feel valued in these buildings," said Terra Hiltner, a librarian at Southeast Baltimore's Holabird Academy, who attended the news conference with a coalition of advocates from Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

Hiltner said temperatures in her school's cafeteria routinely climb to 90 degrees, prompting staff to open windows — and let in flies, since there are no screens. The gymnasium has a low drop-ceiling, and children often knock down tiles when playing ball, she said.

Rawlings-Blake's plan would combine the revenue from the higher bottle-tax proceeds — which her adminstration estimates at $10 million a year — with $12 million in savings from changes in the city's contribution to school system costs and 10 percent of the city's share of profits from a planned slots casino, estimated at $1.6 million.

Beverage lobbyists and the owner of a small family-run grocery store viewed the morning news conference from a sidewalk across the street. They say that the bottle tax pushes shoppers into nearby counties, causing city stores to lose revenue.

The 2-cent tax was imposed last year after months of fierce debate, and it appears that the proposed increase will spark another battle.

While three council members — Vice President Ed Reisinger, Mary Pat Clarke and Robert W. Curran — joined Rawlings-Blake at the rostrum, Councilman Carl Stokes and a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young lingered in the back of the crowd.

Stokes, chair of the taxation and finance committee, said he would not follow the adminstration's recommendations to append the tax increase to a bill introduced by Councilwoman Belinda Conaway that was designed to hasten the demise of the 2-cent tariff.

"That's not the intent of that bill," said Stokes. "That's not fair to the sponsor."

Reisinger, who as the mayor's floor leader is responsible for pushing her agenda, said he planned to introduce a nonbinding resolution at next week's meeting calling for support of Rawlings-Blake's proposal. He said he expected a bill to raise the bottle tax to be introduced after the new council is sworn in next month.

Six of the 15 current council members support the tax increase, Reisinger said, and the others either oppose it or are undecided. In December, two new council members whom Rawlings-Blake endorsed in this fall's election — Brandon M. Scott and Nick Mosby — will take their seats.

Members of the BUILD interfaith group said they plan to lobby council members to back the new tax. The group led a bus tour through East Baltimore on Sunday, in part to draw attention to school buildings in need of repair.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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