Regardless of whether county residents vote to limit growth in property tax revenues, the two candidates for county executive promise to control spending.

Where county money comes from and where it goes dominated discussion Tuesday night at a debate sponsored by the Anne Arundel Trade Council, as the candidates took questions from editors of The Baltimore Sun, the Annapolis Capital and Annapolitan magazine.

Despite legal notices in two local newspapers yesterday that said it would be on the November ballot, an amendment to roll property tax revenues back to 1989 levels was declared invalid last Thursday by the state Court of Appeals .

The court did uphold the amendment's second provision, which would limit increases in property tax revenues to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

The County Council plans to run a new series of advertisements reflecting the court's decision.

In the meantime, the two candidates for county executive want voters to make no mistake: both men oppose the amendment as inflexible and potentially damaging to county services, but each promises to impose his own spending limits to relieve the burden on taxpayers.

It took Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus two rounds of questions Tuesday night, but he finally said he doesn't support the property tax amendment proposed by the Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government.

Unlike Sophocleus, Republican Robert Neall immediately and bluntly opposed the amendment when questioned.

If passed, budget officials estimate, the measure could cost the county as much as $8 million in anticipated revenues in fiscal year 1992, which begins July 1.

Sophocleus, a two-term county councilman from Linthicum, offered a voluntary 5 to 8 percent limit on spending growth, property tax breaks for the elderly and his own amendment to create a county spending affordability committee.

He also wants to cap growth in individual property tax bills at 3 to 5 percent.

"My bottom line is 5 percent; I'm not that far off," Sophocleus told about 150 people who gathered at Anne Arundel Community College for the debate.

Republican Robert R. Neall outlined a similar program, promising roll backs in salaries and pensions for political appointees, limiting growth in services to below increases in personal income, and, as a last resort, reducing public employee rolls through attrition to meet a voluntary 5 percent cap on property tax growth.

He also took a swipe at the spending record of departing County Executive O. James Lighthizer -- and, by implication, Sophocleus -- when he said he would manage the county more efficiently.

"I might opt for people who care more than cost more," said Neall, a former House of Delegates minority leader who established a reputation as a budget cutter and sometime antagonist of public employee unions.

He drew the first sustained applause of the 90-minute debate when he promised to repeal an unfunded boost in pension benefits that allows political appointees to retire at age 50. Sophocleus voted against the measure but his wife and council aide, Alice, is among its beneficiaries.

Despite the call for tax relief and the threat of recession, both candidates embraced expanded programs for fighting drug abuse, and supporting affordable housing and job training, without identifying ways to pay for them.

Sophocleus said the drug war doesn't require making a choice between spending more money on law enforcement or social programs. Instead, he said, success depends on more intense involvement by the community.

He supports mandatory drug education from kindergarten to 12th grade; opening schools up year-round and throughout the day for recreation programs, and expansion of police-based anti-drug programs to all county schools.

"That doesn't take a lot of funding," Sophocleus said. "It takes cooperation."

Neall had no arguments with his opponent's program, which mirrors the statewide strategy he helped devise as Maryland's first drug policy coordinator.

"We're going to have to do all of it," he said. "There's no question about it."

But, he said, "What this county needs more than anything else is a coordinated law enforcement effort."

The county can get "more bang for its law enforcement buck" if local police agencies -- including county, Annapolis and military police -- collaborate with federal and state efforts, Neall said.

A coordinated effort would pay for itself through assets seized from drug dealers and participation in jointly funded police programs, he said, although he cited no specific numbers.

Sophocleus also said that whatever money the county spends on fighting drugs in the short term would be saved in long-term prison costs.

Neither candidate talked about nor was asked about a county study predicting that expansion or replacement of the overcrowded detention center in Parole would cost between $75 million and $100 million.

Neall and Sophocleus agreed that affordable housing is crucial to continued economic vitality in the county, where the average new home costs about $130,000.

"You've got to make provisions for people who work for you," Neall said as the Baltimore region evolves further from industrial to service industries. He suggested Tuesday that the county and building industry join in underwriting affordable housing units in each councilmanic district, forgive or defer settlement costs for first-time buyers and review density limits to allow lower land costs.

"We've already started the program in Anne Arundel County," Sophocleus countered.

He cited small-scale programs offered by the Community Action Agency and Habitat for Humanity, as well as a county and state program that helps people buy and transfer homes out of the noise zone surrounding Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But neither man suggested ways to pay for the hundreds of affordable homes a new generation of families would need to remain county residents.

During past debates, Neall has suggested that the county and developers should create an investment bank similar to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, to help finance construction of as many as 500 new affordable housing units annually.

Both candidates said the county needs to expand job-training programs as businesses lay off workers during the expected recession.

They agreed that the county school system and community college are central to producing a well-trained work force, but both pointed to the private sector as the keys to continued strength in employment.

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