Mayor Schmoke's piggyback tack


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's call to raise Baltimore's piggyback income tax from 50 percent to 52 percent to hire more police officers is a sound idea -- if he can convince City Council members and residents that the money will be spent with pinpoint effectiveness.

Yes, the city's real estate tax rate is double that of its suburban neighbors, but that imbalance will be there for a long time and is not just cause for inertia. Violent crime, up about 30 percent from a decade ago, has driven away middle-class residents and businesses and casts a pall on efforts to attract anyone in their place.

"This has to be nipped in the bud," says city Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, before correcting himself. "Well, it's almost in full bloom now."

If those council members who have already vowed to fight any tax increase can show a better way to put another 100-plus police officers on the street, fine, but residents as well as members of the Maryland General Assembly are loathe to see the city debate its problems to exhaustion.

While no one argues with the benefits of putting more officers on the street, Mayor Schmoke won't have an easy sell. It's a given these days that the electorate does not trust government at any level to spend its money wisely; in the case of the city, even its own elected officials don't put great faith in City Hall's ability to handle a buck. On top of that, the Baltimore City Homeowners' Coalition for Fair Property Taxes plans to point out that even though the police budget is $40 million larger than it was three years ago, only 25 more officers have been dispatched to the street over that period.

Like his friend in the White House, the mayor might be perceived as going about the process backwards: seeking revenue increases before assuring voters of his devotion to attacking a mammoth problem that has festered for years. The Schmoke administration recently debuted its community policing program

to strengthen relationships between patrol officers and neighborhoods. But that will take five years to implement fully. The city can't wait years to respond to this problem.

It's disheartening that it takes an event as horrific as the murder of a nun three weeks ago, or the shooting of two policemen last fall, to elicit a response to a problem that bleeds the city daily.

Taxpayers are correct to demand they get their money's worth, but they shouldn't get bogged down in an argument over whether Baltimore can afford to act. It can't afford not to.

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