Bait and switch: Anne Arundel's foolish $1 tax break

What do you call someone who charges you $20 for a service then hands you $1 and expects you to see him as a benefactor? A clever marketer? A con man?

In Anne Arundel County, that's what you call the County Council. Only the game they are playing in Anne Arundel is worse, not only because it's a transparent attempt to fool the voters but because it will worsen the county's woeful budget situation.

County residents may recall that just a matter of weeks ago, the council approved a $1.2 billion budget that includes a 3-cent property tax increase. Given that county residents like property taxes about as much as sunbathers enjoy mosquitoes (and enjoy one of the tightest caps on property taxes in the state as a result), it was a painful, but necessary, choice.

Certainly, one can't argue that the county is wasteful with taxpayer dollars. County employees haven't seen a pay raise in years. The Fiscal 2012 budget includes a nearly 5 percent pay decrease thanks to a whopping mandatory 12 furlough days.

Yet on Monday, the council will take up a proposal to reduce county income taxes by a tiny amount — from the current 2.56 percent to 2.53 percent — on the grounds that it will allow citizens a "small respite on their burdens."

Small? We're talking ant-size. County officials estimate that it would amount to perhaps $1 per week. That's enough to buy a tall latte at Starbucks — if one saves up for a month.

This is foolish by any measure. First, it will cost the county $4 million at a time when officials are openly worried that the county's bond rating may be lowered because of diminished cash reserves. Such a downgrade would be far more costly in the long-term than a mere $4 million.

Secondly, it's a classic bait and switch maneuver. With the property tax increase, the council is taking $18.5 million but returning only $4 million. They can claim all the "respites" they want but that's clearly not what's going on.

Just how dumb do they think voters are? The proposed income tax cut is for one-year only. So even as a sop to fiscal conservatives, it's a nothing-burger.

But perhaps worst of all, financing a one-year income tax reduction with a property tax increase is regressive tax policy. The rich pay more in income taxes, but that's not necessarily the case in property taxes, particularly in Anne Arundel with its hundreds of miles of scenic waterfront. Rising property values can easily make a middle-income county resident house poor — hit hard by property taxes and little-helped by a token income tax reduction.

The council may also want to remember that such a tax break won't go unnoticed a few hundred yards away in the State House where certain lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, are pushing to foist more of the cost of teacher pensions on the counties next year. This is what they are bound to ask themselves, "How cash-strapped could Anne Arundel County be if it can afford to give away $4 million?"

It's also pretty insulting to county government workers who have sacrificed so much during the economic recession and its slow recovery. One can imagine county unions won't be in the mood to make further concessions during the next contract talks.

The best that can be said about the proposed $1 a week tax break is that it's probably intended as a message to county residents that the council feels their pain in these difficult times. But you can bet it won't be interpreted that way by ordinary citizens — at least those with basic math skills.

Better to scrap this foolish plan and look down the road for opportunities to genuinely lower taxes — if that's the council's true goal. The slots parlor now under construction at Arundel Mills mall is likely to be helpful in the cause in a couple of years. And a permanent tax break is something council incumbents may find voters actually appreciate — and will remember when the county goes back to the voting booth to decide their fate in 2014.

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