Without fanfare or controversy, the Baltimore City Council approved yesterday a $2.4 billion spending plan for next year that directs additional money to children's programs while making a 2-cent cut in the city property tax rate.
As expected, the council overwhelmingly approved the fiscal year 2007 budget - which represents a 3.4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. Debate over the budget has been tempered by higher-than-expected revenues, which eliminated the need to make deep cuts.
The budget, which will take effect July 1, was bolstered by a $61 million surplus from this year that City Hall put toward school building rehabilitation and community programs - a marked contrast to the deficits of past years.
"No one city budget is ever the end of our journey," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We're better than we were last year. We're not as far as we want to be along next year. It's only the second year that we've had a debate about what we do with a surplus as opposed to how we close a deficit."
Eleven City Council members voted in favor of the property tax rate set by the budget, with Councilmen James B. Kraft and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. voting in opposition. Council members Edward L. Reisinger and Agnes Welch did not attend yesterday's meetings.
Several council members - including Kraft and Mitchell - had introduced proposals to cut the tax rate beyond the 2-cent reduction supported by O'Malley. Given the city's surpluses, they said, more money should have been returned to residents. Those arguments failed to muster support.
"This does nothing for a majority of the people in my district," said Kraft, whose constituents along the harbor have been at the center of much of the city's real estate growth in recent years. "Two cents does nothing."
As part of last night's budget process, the Board of Estimates unanimously approved a tax rate of $2.288 per $100 of assessed value. The 2-cent cut would save a homeowner about $30 a year on a home assessed at $150,000.
Property taxes are calculated by multiplying the rate by the home's assessed value. Because new assessments are driving up the value of property faster than the rate is cut, many homeowners and businesses will face increased taxes this year.
The council, which has power to cut but not increase the mayor's proposed budget, attached only one amendment. Councilman Robert W. Curran withheld $500,000 from the Department of Planning, pending further review of its capital budget.
The $381.3 million capital budget, which incudes money for road reconstruction and community centers, held virtually no projects for Curran's Northeast Baltimore district. He asked the department to explain its priorities or face the cut. "The constituents that I represent need a voice in the City Council to stand up for them," Curran said. "I'm not just going to roll over."
Otis Rolley III, the city planning director, said he will work with agencies to "meet the capital needs of [Curran's] district."
Because of the surplus, the council was able to direct millions more for school programs and other initiatives, including $25 million for school reconstruction, more than $7 million for after-school programs and about $13 million for the Police Department, including for overtime.
"It's also been a stressless budget, which sometimes is a lot better than when we had to defer and not give city employees raises," said Council President Sheila Dixon. "That's been a plus."