Budget battle: a bitter aftertaste Mayor, council fought over taxes, cutbacks; legal question lingers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

These days, lots of folks are miffed with City Hall, including City Hall.

The source of this consternation is the new budget and the nasty impact it will have on the city.

After weeks of hardball politics, Baltimore has a tax rate that results in the collection of more money than is needed to run the government, and the $4.5 million surplus will sit unused while arts and cultural programs and recreation centers will be cut.

And now, the city Law Department is investigating whether the whole thing was legal.

The mayor is unhappy. The City Council is unhappy. So are many Baltimoreans.

"I think the people may get mad with everyone and vote all of them out," state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday.

At the Walters Art Gallery, the budget is just about the worst thing that could have happened.

"We are working on a plan to account for what we have been calling the worst case scenario, which is now happening," said Ann Wilson, director of marketing and communications. "The only immediate decision we are taking is canceling our film program that runs movies every Friday night," Wilson said.

The Walters will lose $562,307 from its annual operating budget of $8,826,000.

The Walters and other arts institutions will lose half of their city funding when the budget takes effect July 1. Officials at most of the institutions have said they are studying how the city cuts will affect their programs.

The mayor said the 17 percent cut in the recreation and parks budget will not take effect until Sept. 1.

For many, the budget game of one-upmanship between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a faction of City Council led by President Lawrence A. Bell III got out of hand.

Yesterday, even city leaders were perplexed about the potential ramifications of a bizarre night of politics in which the council scuttled a property tax cut and the mayor blamed the council for bungling a chance to prevent millions of dollars in service cuts.

City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson said yesterday that his office was investigating whether the council overstepped its authority by ignoring the 5-cent cut in the property tax set by the Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor, and returned the rate to $5.85 for each $100 of assessed value.

"This has never happened before," Thompson said. "We are examining the consequences of passing a higher rate."

Bell countered yesterday that the council was within its rights. The council hoped to prod the mayor to restore deep cuts in arts and recreation programs, he said.

The mayor said the City Charter prevented him from restoring the cuts in city services because the property tax can generate only enough money to operate the city government. The $4.5 million surplus the $5.85 rate generates must go into an unused separate fund, according to the city solicitor's interpretation of the City Charter.

The budget session "was like a poker game and who could call whose bluff," said Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Helen L. Holton. "And in some respects, the council gambled and lost."

Many thought the effort would end in a compromise.

"We were led to believe that some real negotiation was going on and there was going to be some recognition for the importance of cultural institutions in the city," said Joan Channick, associate managing director of Center Stage. "We were surprised to learn that full 50 percent reduction was going to hold."

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, chastised the mayor and the council for not working well together.

"They should have tried to work it out. That's what the governor and legislature do. Ultimately, I think that's what benefits the citizens." she said.

George Nilson, president of the Baltimore Homeowners' Coalition, said yesterday that the consequences of the dust-up between Schmoke and the council were unclear to him.

"Nobody wanted to have four-plus million sitting somewhere for the next year with the city unable to do anything with it," Nilson said. "Why doesn't somebody do something about it? Maybe because there is too much stubbornness."

Pub Date: 6/14/97

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