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Clarke wants to channel funds to neighborhoods


City Council President Mary Pat Clarke last night added a new wrinkle to the debate on special benefits districts, introducing a bill that would channel municipal funds to neighborhood groups to be used to augment public safety and sanitation services.

Under Ms. Clarke's bill, 30 cents of the city's property tax rate, currently $5.90 per $100 of assessed value, would be devoted to "community benefit districts" and would be distributed to qualifying neighborhoods based on their population.

The bill would make $24 million available to neighborhoods. The money would come from governmental "belt-tightening," Ms. Clarke said.

She said her bill would allow less wealthy, mostly residential areas of the city to gain some control over essential services without having to impose supplemental taxes.

"The reason I think this bill is very important is that there's a certain energy in having a say in how services are distributed. Everyone should have that opportunity," Ms. Clarke said.

Also last night, sparks flew briefly over the wording of a resolution to form an advisory committee for the Police Department's new Community Policing Program.

The resolution sponsored by Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon called on "interested members of the African-American Coalition of the City Council, in cooperation with the Public Safety Committee" to join the advisory committee.

But Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, complained that the resolution was "not inclusionary at all" because he was neither a member of the coalition nor the Public Safety Committee, but was interested in the issue of community policing. Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo, D-1st, and Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th, joined his complaints.

Ms. Dixon retorted that the resolution "does not leave out anyone." But, noting that blacks were the victims of most crime in the city, she asked, "Why shouldn't the African-American Coalition stand out front on this issue?"

Ms. Clarke, who referred the resolution to committee, tried to calm tempers, saying, "It is a language problem. It is not an intention problem."

Also referred to committee last night was a resolution sponsored by Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, opposing Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to give $600,000 to 200 low-income students to attend private schools.

Ms. Clarke said her community benefits bill was designed in part to counter criticism by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others that the proliferation of special benefits districts, paid for by additional taxes, could lead to the "Balkanization" of the city, with services based on a community's ability to pay for them.

Using existing rather than additional tax money, and basing the allocation of funds on population rather than the assessable tax base, would further ensure equitable participation, Ms. Clarke said. "It's a redistribution of resources based on population, not wealth," she said.

The concept of special benefits districts is catching on in upper- and middle-income commercial and residential areas throughout the city.

Last week, public safety guides and sanitation workers made their official debut in a 90-block area of downtown, paid for by a surtax on property owners. South Charles Village, Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon have also expressed interest in creating similar districts. Legislation before the General Assembly would set up special tax districts in South Charles Village and Bolton Hill, while another bill would allow any section of the city to set up its own taxing district, subject to approval by the City Council.

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