Compromise at City Hall


All sides at City Hall seem to have yielded a bit in fashioning a compromise $1.8 billion operating budget for Baltimore that lets office holders take credit in this election season for a five-cent cut in the property tax rate, an increase in police foot patrols and housing inspectors and a retention of existing services without substantial layoffs.

This ranks as a considerable achievement. The cut in the property tax rate to $5.90 per $100 of assessed value is largely symbolic -- it will save the owner of a $56,000 home only $11 on his tax bill. Still, it sends a clear message that city officials understand the plight of middle-class home owners and want to start reducing Baltimore's reliance on the property tax rate as a funding source.

There is also symbolic value in the money raised to put 50 more patrol officers on the street and hire 18 more housing inspectors. Fighting crime and rooting out housing code violations will make the city more habitable for its residents.

The City Council, in a preliminary vote Monday night, came up with the added funds by posting a $7.50 surcharge on the disposal fee at city-owned landfills and by reducing the city's contribution to the municipal employee retirement system. This last step is prudent, given the high earnings of the retirement fund in recent years.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke won solid backing on the budget vote from the seven black members of the City Council, who refused to be intimidated by the beverage and tavern industries' campaign to repeal the city's bottle tax, which the mayor has already vetoed. Council President Mary Pat Clarke, much to black council members' embarrassment, repeatedly tried to schedule a veto-override vote. That would have been divisive and fiscally irresponsible. Faced with sure defeat, Ms. Clarke finally relented.

Baltimore City remains the fiscal beggar within the metropolitan region. Yet Mr. Schmoke and the council performed well in utilizing the city's dwindling tax base -- even during a time of economic recession -- to come up with a upbeat budget. When the council meets Monday to give the budget final approval, it can take pride in helping to craft a spending plan that has much to recommend it.

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