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Key councilman leaning against city bottle tax

A key city councilman says he is leaning against supporting a new tax on bottled beverages slated for a vote Thursday, throwing the measure's prospects into doubt.

Councilman Carl Stokes, seen as a swing vote on the controversial proposal, said late Wednesday that he does not agree with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plans for the proceeds of the tax. He said the revenue should save more jobs than the 70 that Rawlings-Blake says it will preserve; the mayor wants to use the money to restore street-cleaning and sanitation programs, among other initiatives.

"I don't have a reason to vote for the bottle tax," he said. "If I had a reason, like more jobs and fewer furlough days, I'd vote for it."

A Stokes vote against the tax would likely lead to a 7-7 tie, resulting in its defeat.

The proposed tariff is one of several taxes and fees on which council members are scheduled to vote Thursday at an emergency meeting to help close the city's $121 million budget shortfall before the current fiscal year ends in less than two weeks.

The bottle tax is the only tariff proposed by Rawlings-Blake that the council has not approved. She estimates that it would add $11 million to the city's coffers.

Early Wednesday, the mayor urged council members to support the tax, saying proceeds could prevent cuts to street-sweeping and trash-skimming programs. The administration released figures this week showing that it could save 70 city workers from layoffs.

Five of the 15 council members have pledged to back the tax, but six say that they will vote against it.

Beverage distributors and store owners have attacked the proposal in a blitz of radio and print ads. They say it will force them to raise prices and will cost them customers.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young says that he will recuse himself from the vote because his cousin works for a beverage distributor.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, Councilman Warren Branch and Stokes had indicated that they would vote for the tax if the funds were directed to initiatives they supported.

Clarke said Wednesday that she planned to vote for the bottle tax because it would mean one fewer fire company closed on a rotating basis each day, fund the Main Streets program and restore a matching grant to the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, which runs educational activities in her district.

She said residents in her district in the Northeast have been "overwhelmingly supportive" of the tax.

"I've been quite overwhelmed by the diversity of the e-mails and being stopped on the street about it," said Clarke. "That doesn't usually happen."

Branch said that he had not seen the list of restorations that the administration distributed Monday. As a former public works employee, he said, he is sensitive to preserving jobs in that department. But he said he has also heard from many foes of the tax.

"I'll make the decision based on the final phone calls and e-mails" before Thursday's meeting, Branch said.

Stokes, who voted against several other taxes, including increases to income and energy tax rates, said that he would back the measure only if it were used to retain more workers. He said an $11 million tax should result in saving more than 70 jobs.

The vote Thursday is not binding but is seen as a key indicator of support for the tax. If it is approved, it will be scheduled for a final vote at Monday's council meeting.

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