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Taxes fairly shared

FORGET FOR a minute the higher taxes that will be paid to consume energy, use cell phones and buy property in Baltimore. They were coming.

This year's budget go-round produced the kind of lively debate, number-crunching and directed action from the City Council that has been sadly lacking in years past. That's the kind of check on city spending taxpayers should expect, especially in a city where the mayor holds such sway.

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Council members engaged in a constructive way to review Mayor Martin O'Malley's proposed $2.1 billion budget. They understood the city's dire needs and sagging revenue picture but at the same time recognized the impact City Hall's proposed $45 million tax package would have on the Baltimore residents who could least afford more taxes and on the city's rising profile.

If some council proposals had constituents dodging for cover, members Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., chairs of the budget and taxation committees, respectively, effectively listened and led. With the mayor's budget and revised $30 million tax package now approved, Council President Sheila Dixon is determined to impose the energy tax on state and federal agencies operating in Baltimore, facilities now exempt. But that's for a later date. Now, city officials should focus on keeping Baltimore primed and pumped. Mr. O'Malley didn't get all that he wanted in new or increased taxes, but he got enough to maintain twice-weekly trash pickup (with recycling), retain an increased police presence and hold the line on fire station closings. They are all critical to the quality of life in the city.

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Other budget items of note:

Mr. O'Malley will invest $1 million in a summer jobs program for youths and put $973,000 into after-school programs, key ways to improve the lives of city kids.

As is its customary practice, the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch won't be open on Sundays this summer. But come September, the Sunday hours will return. A few branches, however, will be forced to cut some hours during the year.

Lawyers and staff in the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy will share in $1.5 million for pay raises, a needed increase that we expect the city's top prosecutor to convert into criminal justice gains.

Baltimore's thriving nonprofit community bore the brunt of the council's budget deliberations - they will pay a 6 percent energy tax, instead of the 2 percent levy on residents and manufacturers. Nonprofits, from the local soup kitchen to the behemoth institutions such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, contribute greatly to the city's well-being, socially and financially. They employ about 22 percent of city workers, and their annual payroll of $3.2 billion accounts for nearly 20 percent of all city wages.

Manufacturers, which represent 7 percent of the city work force, complained bitterly about losing their exemption from the energy tax. They had threatened to leave the city if taxed. There's no doubt that manufacturers' investment in the city's human and physical capital is tremendously important. But the City Council did cut the industries a break, and it's time now for them to contribute along with other city players.


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