City Council backs two-cent bottle tax

The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary backing Monday night to a 2-cent tax on bottled beverages after Councilwoman Helen L. Holton reversed her opposition at the end of a day of intense lobbying by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration.

Holton's reversal came late in a marathon series of meetings marking the conclusion of the prolonged and rancorous negotiations between the mayor and the council over the city's budget.

The tariff, set to expire after three years, represents a compromise between Rawlings-Blake and the council, which voted last week to reject the 4-cent bottle tax the mayor had proposed. The council now is scheduled to hold a final vote Thursday on the 2-cent tax.

The proceeds of the tax — estimated to be around $5.7 million — will prevent layoffs of 47 workers and fund street cleaning, graffiti removal and the maintenance of trash-skimming nets in the Inner Harbor, said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

Holton, who had staunchly opposed the tariff and had backed competing measures that failed, met with Rawlings-Blake less than an hour before the council meeting began. As one of the council members who had voted against the tax last week, Holton was able to file a motion to reconsider it Monday night.

The bottle tax represented the centerpiece of a $50 million package of taxes and fees proposed by Rawlings-Blake to help plug a $121 million hole in the city's $2.2 billion budget. The tax met with strong opposition from retailers and beverage lobbyists, who had quashed similar measures in Philadelphia and Washington this year.

In her remarks before the council, Holton sounded more like a critic of the bill than a supporter, calling the tax "anti-business" and describing her decision as "a dark hour for the me and for the city of Baltimore."

"I hope that brighter days are coming and that taxes such as these never see the light of day in the Baltimore City again," said Holton.

The councilwoman apologized to the residents of her district, a majority of whom, she said, opposed the bottle tax. But she said the residents deserved to have swept streets, emptied trash cans and clean waterways — programs that Rawlings-Blake said would have lost funding if the tax was not passed.

Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo, who voted against the 2-cent tax, harshly criticized Holton and said he was "ashamed" to be a member of the council.

"Your word is your bond," said D'Adamo, adding that he believed the tax would hurt small businesses while large universities and hospitals escaped with a "sweetheart deal" for a $20 million payment-in-lieu-of-taxes spread over six years.

Store owners and lobbyists said they were disappointed by the compromise, but the reduced rate of the tax blunted their chief complaint: that it would send shoppers to the surrounding counties.

Southeast Baltimore supermarket owner Rob Santoni, a fierce opponent of the tax, said that Rawlings-Blake pushed the compromise because she did not want to concede defeat on an issue that she had strongly advocated.

"This is about the mayor not wanting to lose," said Santoni. "This is her picking up her toys and going home."

Nine of the 14 council members at Monday's meeting voted in favor of the tax, with Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who says he has a cousin who works as a lobbyist for a bottling company, abstaining from the vote.

In a surprise move, Councilman Warren Branch — who had cast a key vote against the tax last week — voted to approve it because, he said, it would save jobs in the Department of Public Works, where he was employed for more than two decades.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, an advocate of the tax, was so taken aback by Branch's vote that she voiced an expletive and enthusiastically slapped him on the back.

Councilman Carl Stokes also voted in favor of the tax, although moments before the meeting was called to order, he described it with an expletive in a conversation with Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who had been rallying votes for the tax.

"If they needed 4 cents, they needed 4 cents," said Stokes. "Now they're saying they need 2 cents?"

Stokes expressed doubt the administration would cut cleaning services without the new tax, but ultimately voted for it.

In a lengthy e-mail to residents in his district sent Monday, Councilman James B. Kraft, struck a similar note.

"The Mayor is running for election next year," wrote Kraft, who voted against the tax. "She cannot run in a dirty city and … she is the only one who can decide whether the money will be spent to keep it clean."

In an elaborate series of bureaucratic rituals, the council covened and recessed three times during the evening. Following procedures scripted by the city's charter, the council approved a stripped-down budget presented by Rawlings-Blake, then sped a bundle of 29 supplemental appropriations — which use funding from new taxes to restore cuts to police, fire and other other agencies — through a hearing and three votes.

That process means that the harsh cuts outlined in Rawlings-Blake's initial budget, which included layoffs of police and firefighters, have been averted. More than 600 city workers have received pink slips, but about 200 are expected to lose their jobs on July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

The council also gave its final approval to an overhaul of the fire and police pension system, which officials say will save the city $65 million and head off an imminent fiscal crisis.

Clarke introduced a bevy of amendments proposed by union leaders, which would have provided more benefits to widows of retirees and guaranteed a 2 percent annual increase, but the amendments failed by a narrow margin.

Union leaders, who have filed a federal lawsuit contending the pension changes constitute a violation of their contract, warned that the pension bill would decimate morale. They said they were furious with council members who supported the measure.

"It's our goal right now to help nine of the council people to collect their pension as soon as possible," said firefighters union president Robert Sledgeski.

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

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