Council repeals bottle tax


The possibility of property tax relief this year for Baltimore homeowners vanished last night in a turbulent City Council meeting marked by heated exchanges and hostile political maneuvering.

Instead, after struggling over how to cut the $2.3 billion budget proposed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the council opted for repealing the city's controversial bottle tax.

The council's actions mean that Baltimore residents will be able to buy a cheaper soda or beer as early as January. But they'll still be paying by far the highest property taxes in Maryland.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and five other council members -- Anthony J. Ambridge and Carl Stokes of the 2nd District, Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District, Lawrence A. Bell of the 4th District and Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District -- voted against the budget.

Mrs. Clarke, Mr. Ambridge and Mr. Stokes said they could not support the budget when the school system had failed to provide a breakdown of administrative expenses and a contingency plan if the General Assembly cuts state aid next year.

"I think it's a bad budget. It's been a bad budget process," complained Mr. DiBlasi, who failed to muster enough support to cut the property tax rate by 3 cents.

The often-acrimonious council session followed a day of intense lobbying by the administration to avoid a showdown over property taxes. Mayor Schmoke insisted the financially strapped city could not afford to lower the tax rate -- at $5.85 per $100 of assessed value -- and also abolish the beverage container tax.

Yesterday, the mayor met with key council members to try to persuade them not to cut the property tax rate. He also tried to pressure the council by holding off signing the bill passed last month to phase out the bottle tax.

Mr. DiBlasi, who had vowed to seek a property tax break, focused first last night on finding $1.3 million in budget cuts to finance the bottle tax repeal. He then tried to use those cuts for property tax relief, but failed when a council majority voted against him.

At one point, when Schmoke supporters asked for a 45-minute recess to enable the administration to put together its competing plan, the meeting turned chaotic.

Mr. Bell turned to the mayor's staff and said, "I think y'all really dropped the ball today."

A flushed 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a Schmoke ally, confronted Mrs. Clarke, who repeatedly banged her gavel for order.

Voicing the frustration of many, Mr. Ambridge cried, "Let's move on. How in the heck can we ever proceed in this mindless fashion?"

Mrs. Clarke, who complained that most of her colleagues had failed to show up for two budget work sessions yesterday, kept the meeting going until the mayor's amendments arrived. The council then dropped $200,000 of the proposed cuts in virtually every city agency, leading to a final budget reduction of $1.1 million.

Baltimore is the last jurisdiction in the state to tax disposable cans and bottles. Under the legislation before the mayor, the city would phase out the tax -- now 2 cents on containers of 14 ounces or less and 4 cents on anything larger -- by the summer of 1997.

The repeal eventually will cost the city $6 million a year in revenues.

Advocates of a property tax cut said it was needed to reduce the high cost of living in Baltimore and attempt to slow the middle-class migration to the suburbs. But their arguments were overwhelmed by strong support for repealing the bottle tax.

"This container tax has cost us jobs and business over the last years," said Mrs. Clarke, who decided to push for the repeal instead of a property tax reduction.

Each penny cut in the property tax rate saves the average city homeowner about $1.80 a year in taxes -- and costs the city $800,000 in lost revenue.

Toward the end of the nearly five-hour session, Mr. O'Malley offered two toughly worded amendments to slash $2 million from the law department's budget for outside legal services and to reduce the housing department's budget by $500,000. Both failed, although eight council members expressed strong support for cutting the amount spent to hire outside lawyers.

Last night's action avoided a replay of the budget battle of two years ago, when the council pushed through a property tax cut and Mayor Schmoke vetoed the budget. The council and administration negotiated a nickel tax cut last year.

Council members offered varying explanations for the heated meeting. Some dismissed it as the result of election-year maneuvering with Mrs. Clarke challenging the mayor and four other council members vying to replace her.

But 5th District Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, the other budget co-chair, said, "It just shows emotions end up running very high when there are serious issues being considered."

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