Bottle tax relief not likely soon


Curtis Howard and his wife don't have a car that would allow them to shop for groceries outside the city. That means they're unlikely to avoid paying Baltimore's tax on beverage bottles and cans anytime soon.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke have launched separate efforts to have the tax repealed. But Mr. Schmoke's proposal, tied to budget relief from a state takeover of the city Circuit Court system, appears headed for failure.

"It doesn't look like that is going to happen," state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., sponsor of the takeover measure that would save the city $6 million a year, said yesterday. The measure has faced the usual opposition from Montgomery County and some rural counties to sending additional state money for Baltimore, he said.

That's bad news for Mr. Howard, who lives in Edmondson Village and works nights as a custodian at the Harbor Court hotel.

Every time the Howards buy one of their children a can or bottle of soda in Baltimore, it means another 2 cents for the city's tax coffers. If the children share a can or bottle of more than 16 ounces, the tax is 4 cents.

"We've got four children, so you know there's a lot of drinking sodas in our house," Mr. Howard said.

A gubernatorial commission concluded in January that it would be too expensive for the state to take over Baltimore's Circuit Court system. Mr. Pica said the uncertainty caused by anticipated federal budget cuts had also made it difficult to get support for the takeover.

He said there's still a chance that the state might take over some responsibilities, such as payment of jurors. But such savings wouldn't be enough to offset the $6 million a year collected through the bottle tax.

Mrs. Clarke, meanwhile, has called for a three-year phase-out of the tax, whether the state takes over the courts or not. It would be politically difficult for Mr. Schmoke to support her proposal, because she is running for mayor against him. But he didn't rule that out.

"I can only say the container tax is moving toward sunset in the city and it's only a question of when it will sunset," the mayor said.

Those words are encouraging to city merchants who compete with suburban stores and to Baltimore residents who wonder why they must pay a tax that residents of more affluent areas do not.

"It bothers me, I count every penny," said Cindy Curtis. The Choice TV Rental employee said she didn't know the bottle of soda she buys every day at lunch costs more because she buys it in the city. "I only get an hour for lunch, but I may have to rethink my routine."

Cynthia Wilson, 46, of the 200 block of Calhoun St. said the two children in her house drink a lot of soda. "But I can't be driving all the way to the county to buy sodas. I'd spend whatever I save on gas."

Essew Leak Sr., 70, of the 700 block of Linnard St. said he knew about the tax, but because he is retired he has plenty of time to drive to Baltimore County where he doesn't have to pay it. "I might go to five different stores."

Too many people already are crossing the city border to buy beverages, said John Roethenhoefer, owner of Three Brothers grocery in Gwynn Falls. He's spearheading a petition drive to repeal the container tax, and 2,000 signatures have been collected in three weeks.

Beer and liquor distributors and soft drink bottlers also want the tax repealed.

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