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Religious leaders rally in support of mayor's tax package

Religious leaders gathered Wednesday morning to ask the Baltimore City Council to support a controversial package of taxes proposed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to help plug a $121 million budget gap.

The brief news conference organized by the BUILD interfaith coalition marked the first public event supporting Rawlings-Blake's tax package, which has drawn fierce opposition from retailers, beverage distributors, hotel owners and a host of business groups.

"Nobody likes an increase in taxes and fees, but it's a necessity given the economic climate," said Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chair of BUILD. "What's the alternative?"

BUILD members have championed the city's recreation centers, which would have been decimated by a doomsday spending plan that closed the budget shortfall through cutting services. Rawlings-Blake, who spoke briefly at the news conference, has pledged to keep all the rec centers open through the summer if the council approves her revenue-generating measures, including a bed tax on nonprofit hospitals and universities; a 4-cent tax on bottled beverages; and hikes to energy, telecommunications and income tax rates.

Speaking at the event, Councilman Carl Stokes and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke chose their words carefully, proclaiming that they wanted to restore services but not promising support for individual taxes.

In an interview, Stokes said he would oppose any tax that would directly affect residents — such as the income or energy tax increases — but remained undecided on the bottle tax, since residents could avoid it by changing their shopping habits.

Clarke said she would support the bottle tax only if the council failed to approve other measures that could generate the $41.5 million needed to restore the service cuts sketched out by Rawlings-Blake.

Although "traditionally" she has opposed a bottle tax, "I would only vote for it most reluctantly if we could not reach our mark without it," Clarke said.

Thursday could prove a key date in the lengthy budget process. The council is slated to hear testimony on the energy, telecommunications and income tax hikes proposed by Rawlings-Blake, as well as a tax on billboards proposed by Councilman Bill Henry. A plan from Councilman Robert W. Curran to impose an excise tax on video poker machines is scheduled for a committee vote.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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