Longtime Milwaukee Mayor Meier tested by foe with a taxing idea

A proposed municipal income tax is a key issue in Milwaukee's mayoral election April 1. Dennis Conta, the man behind the proposal, is making a strong bid to upset five-term, 20- year incumbent Henry Meier.

Mr. Conta, who has formerly served as a state legislator and as state secretary of revenue, finished first, 71 votes ahead of Mayor Meier, in Milwaukee's nonpartisan primary Feb. 19. Both are Democrats.

The city income or payroll tax is not a new idea. It is a device used to make commuters who work in cities help pay the cost of services they use, and thus reduce local property taxes. Among cities with such taxes are Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

In this city of declining population and increasing financial burdens, an income tax on both residents and commuters apparently is attractive to many. Asked in a Milwaukee Sentinel survey to react to the statment, "A city income tax should be imposed on all who work in the city, irrespective of where they live," 49 percent of city residents agreed, 43 percent disagreed, and 8 perent did not know or did not respond.

Since the primary, Mr. Meier has warned Miliwaukee residents that what Mr. Conta is proposing might actually increase their tax burden rather than relieve it.

For his part, Mr. Conta has:

* Attacked the local property tax as unfair to those on fixed incomes.

* Hedged by saying he would want more study and a referendum before he chose an income tax as his way to reduce the property tax.

* Stressed that he wants suburbanites who use the city services to pay for snow removal, street repair, and fire and police protection.

Although his initial proposal was for an income tax on all who work in the city, in a recent debate on city financing Mr. Conta asserted that it would be possible for the city to tax suburbanites without taxing city residents. This would require state approval and could be done only if suburbanites were only paying for services they use, he added.

Mr. Meier's response, quick and forceful, was that such a tax has been ruled out by the US Supreme Court.

The question of how central cities can make suburbanites share in the responsibilities of city finance is more than an academic debate in this metropolitan area, which is facing a strict, court-imposed timetable for making

In the months ahead, city and suburban interests, calculators in hand, are expected to clash about how various costs will be paid.

Mayor Meier is trying to get the Carter administration to exempt Milwaukee from expected cuts in water pollution abatement funds.

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