Mayor launches campaign to raise bottle tax for schools

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched her campaign to repair Baltimore's long-neglected schools Monday, introducing a bill to more than double the city's bottle tax as part of a plan to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to fix dilapidated buildings.

"This is something that we can use to help change the landscape when it comes to the physical needs for our schools," the mayor said of the tax. "Our kids deserve better, and sometimes it takes tough decisions to make sure that we provide a way forward for a better school system."

Passing the tax hike — and even deciding on the scope of the school construction and renovation project — likely will be fraught with controversy. Store owners and beverage lobbyists are pushing hard against the tax, and the chairman of the City Council committee that must approve the tariff says he will delay a hearing for at least two months.

Meanwhile, schools advocates are calling on Rawlings-Blake, who has sketched out plans to borrow $300 million, to adopt the city schools chief's more aggressive proposal of floating $1.2 billion in bonds. A 2010 study from the American Civil Liberties Union showed a $2.8 billion need.

"$300 million is like putting a band-aid on a cancer," said Bishop Douglas Miles, chairman of the interfaith group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. "We'll find ourselves in the same position 10 years down the road."

Teachers, students and parents affiliated with BUILD packed Monday's council meeting wearing bright turquoise T-shirts to show support for the tax and the schools initiative.

Arica Gonzalez of West Baltimore's Panway neighborhood said that outside her son's elementary school sits "an old abandoned portable [classroom] riddled with bullet holes."

"As a parent, when I step into the school, I'm disheartened," said Gonzalez, whose son attends John Eager Howard. "This city has failed to care for our children."

Retailers and beverage lobbyists, who gathered at a Northeast Baltimore grocery store Monday morning to protest the tax, say that they support efforts to fix the city's troubled schools but chafe at the burden being placed on their industry.

"The undisputed fact is that we all care about schools," said Rob Santoni, chief financial officer of the eponymous Highlandtown grocery store. "But they don't need ... this tax to get it done."

Santoni said he has reduced his staff by eight employees — from 99 to 91 — to offset revenue lost from the initial 2-cent tax enacted in 2010.

"She's picking on our industry because we're an easy target," he said. "It's easier to collect than property taxes and water bills."

Rawlings-Blake cited the results of a poll showing that most Baltimoreans do not feel that the tax is particularly onerous. "At the end of the day, we need revenue on the table," she said.

Under the mayor's bill, the bottle tax would increase from 2 cents to 5 cents in July 2013, generating a total of roughly $10 million in revenue. Rawlings-Blake would combine those funds with 10 percent of the revenue from the city's planned slots casino and $12 million in savings from a recalculation of teacher pensions to create a $23 million stream of revenue that could leverage $300 million in bonds.

School Chief Executive Officer Andrés Alonso has been asking for the authority to borrow $1.2 billion to fix schools — four times higher than the amount of school construction bonds for which Rawlings-Blake has pushed.

After a series of separate appearances to lobby state lawmakers in Annapolis, Rawlings-Blake and Alonso are expected to testify together Tuesday.

The bottle tax hike must be approved by the council's taxation and finance committee before the whole council can vote on the issue. Although the measure is expected to sail through the full council if it gets to the floor, it faces a challenge in the committee, where only two of five members have said they will support the bill. The others remain undecided.

Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the committee, said Monday night that he did not plan to hold a hearing on the measure until "late April or early May." He said he wanted to wait until the council's education committee holds a hearing on the scope of the needed repairs, in an effort to reconcile Rawlings-Blake's and Alonso's plans.

That could prove deleterious for the city's lobbying efforts in Annapolis, where the General Assembly session ends April 9. State lawmakers have said they want to see the city's funding plan finalized before approving legislation that would allow the city to float bonds against the state's annual contribution to school maintenance.

When asked about the administration's urgency in pushing the bill, Stokes said, "Well, God bless them. There are things I want right now, too."

"We need more than a bottle tax to make this work," he said.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young had promised to push Stokes to hold the hearing sooner. Stokes said Monday that Young had merely inquired whether he planned to hold a hearing.

A companion measure that was also introduced in the council Monday would divert the bottle tax proceeds to a fund — approved by voters on last fall's ballot — that has been designated for school construction.

Young people and their advocates who gathered in the council chambers said the school reconstruction project could not come soon enough.

Vernon Crowffey, a 17-year-old Baltimore City Community College student and recent graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, said his alma mater was plagued by windows that didn't allow in sunlight, and classrooms that were frigid in winter and overheated in summer.

In the winter months, students used to struggle with each other over whether the windows should be open to let in light or closed to conserve the heat, he said.

"It gave a lot of people who didn't want to learn excuses to act up and disrupt the class," he said.

Sharon Wheaden-West, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Westside Elementary, said her school was long plagued by leaking roofs that caused mold to flourish. But a recent renovation of the foyer has lifted the mood of students and teachers, she said.

"It brings on a cheery, open feeling," she said. "You don't feel like you're closed in a dungeon."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the education committee, spoke of the vastness of the needs in city schools — and the difficulties of addressing the problem.

"This is a struggle that's not going to be easy for any of us," she said. "$2.8 billion is a high, high mountain for us to climb."

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