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City Council tentatively OKs budget


The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval yesterday to a $2.08 billion budget for next year, leaving Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's spending proposal untouched.

Thanks to increases in state aid, Baltimore's budget -- due a final vote today -- would beef up the police force and increase education spending without raising city taxes.

But the plan means a second straight year without cost-of-living pay increases for the city's 26,000 employees.

"We have the budget balanced on the goodwill and sacrifice of all the city workers," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

The budget would hold the city's property tax rate at $5.90 per $100 of assessed valuation -- by far the highest in Maryland.

"It was wise that the council has chosen this year not to cut the taxrate," Ms. Clarke said, explaining that the possibility of state budget cuts in the fall would have made a tax cut a risky venture.

In future years, Ms. Clarke said, city officials must make it their business to cut the property taxes.

"We must continue to reduce the cost of living here," she said.

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat, complained that the council did not have enough time to scrutinize the budget proposal, which came to it in mid-May. "There was just too much to do in too little time," Mr. Ambridge said, explaining that the arrival of the budget coincided with a crush of business that comes as the council moves toward its summer recess.

Councilman Lawrence Bell, a 4th District Democrat, the only member to offer a budget amendment, proposed cutting the Police Department's allocation.

The move was aimed at determining the amount the city is paying toprovide police and ambulance service at the new downtown baseball stadium. But Mr. Bell withdrew the motion after members agreed to add language to the budget ordinance addressing that issue.

The budget would close two of of the city's 77 recreation centers and transfer operation of eight others to other agencies or community groups.

It also would keep the city's piggyback income tax rate at 50 percent of the state income tax rate.

The General Assembly recently passed legislation allowing local governments to raise their income tax rates -- the "piggyback tax" -- to as much as 60 percent of the state tax rate. The increase could have provided the city with $25 million a year.

Mayor Schmoke said he did not seek to raise the income tax rate because the city's high taxes already encourage middle-class flight.

The operating portion of the budget appropriation is $1.86 billion, a 4.2 percent increase over last year.

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