Baltimore Co., Arundel tax cap battles sharpen


Just say no to a tax cut. That's the sober message opponents of proposed property tax caps are sending to voters in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

Little more than a week after Maryland's highest court approved tax initiatives for the November ballot, the two measures have become the focus of intense political battles between those who would cut government spending and those who view such cuts as disastrous.

"We're heading for a time when people want austerity," said O. James Lighthizer, the outgoing Anne Arundel County executive. "We have a very vocal minority hitting a responsive chord because times are slowing down, and people react to their message."

Politicians who fear the effects of those cuts are fighting back.

Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen plans to distribute 5,000 fliers pointing out that voters who approve a 2 percent cap on property tax revenues may be kissing good-bye any number of goodies, including $14 million in school roof repairs and a $20 million fire-training academy in Sparrows Point.

"The campaign on the tax cap is off, it's running, and I think you'll see a lot of action very soon," said Mr. Rasmussen, who unlike Mr. Lighthizer is running for re-election.

The Court of Appeals' decision to strip the tax proposals of provisions that would have rolled back tax revenues to the levels of previous years has given the initiatives a good chance of passage, most observers agree. The rollbacks would have cost the two counties $30 million to $60 million each and likely would have meant layoffs and other immediate reductions in services.

In Anne Arundel County, the tax cap issue has already dominated debate in the race for county executive. While neither candidate supports the tax cap, each has claimed the most fiscal parsimony in recent debates.

Republican Robert R. Neall has offered a "self-imposed" ceiling of no more than 5 percent annual growth in property tax revenue. His opponent, Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-1st, has promised increases of only 5 percent to 8 percent each year, depending upon the recommendations of a proposed spending-affordability panel.

The situation is similar in Baltimore County -- both executive candidates are against the cap. But there the initiative is widely seen as a political thorn in the side of Mr. Rasmussen -- a statement that he has not done enough to curb spending.

Mr. Rasmussen said he expects county labor unions, the teachers union and business groups to help defeat the measure.

"The message that has to be disseminated is that if they vote for this thing, they're voting against school repairs, against sidewalk and road replacement," he said. "When someone calls with a complaint about trash or a junked car, it may take a lot longer for the county to respond."

Michael P. McCuster, spokesman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents 1,800 Baltimore County white-collar workers, said, "We intend to get the message out to our workers that if they vote for this thing, it could mean their jobs."

The measures also are changing the way both counties are looking at future plans.

Baltimore County Council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger

III warned a council session this week that members will be looking closely at major projects, because the county might not be able to pay for them under a 2 percent cap.

"It's just common sense that if the cap is 2 percent and the rate of inflation is 4.5 percent, in years to come we will constantly be behind as far as generating the money to pay employees, purchase equipment and meet expenses," he said.

Baltimore County officials argue that the county already has a spending-affordability law that prohibits county spending from exceeding increases in residents' personal income. It also has a 4 percent limit on future increases in property assessments, on which taxes are based.

Property taxes finance about a third of the budgets in both Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Baltimore County's fiscal 1991 budget is $1.1 billion. Anne Arundel's is $616 million.

The proposed cap would cut $20 million in property tax revenue from Baltimore County's budget next year. Anne Arundel's county government would miss out on an estimated $8.4 million if the cap is passed.

Yet the greater costs to county government would come in later years, opponents say. In Anne Arundel, for instance, budget officers estimate that by fiscal 1995 the county would be about $50 million short.

"The best analogy I can give is that, without the rollback, the proposal is no longer giving county government a heart attack, it's slowly closing its arteries," said Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Carole Baker, D-5th. Mrs. Baker, a two-term council member who is not seeking re-election, founded a coalition of public employee unions and civic and business leaders called Fairness for All County Taxpayers (FACT) to fight the Anne Arundel tax cap proposal.

The all-volunteer coalition may have an uphill battle.

A recent poll found that Anne Arundel voters support the tax cap by a 4-1 margin. But when the same survey asked if they favor a tax cap that would reduce such services as fire and police protection and education, the voters were almost evenly split.

Baltimore County Administrator Frank Robey said a major problem is that most voters don't realize that a tax cap will translate into cutbacks in one form or another. He said no program or project would be completely safe from the budget ax.

"It would have a greater effect, a devastating effect, two or three years from now when we can't keep up with the buildings we need, with the maintenance of facilities," he said.

Proponents of the cap say talk of cutting back police and fire services is a scare tactic. They argue that the measure will only force county officials to be more responsible.

"Up until this, they could do anything they wanted with the tax rate, and now, the sky's no longer the limit. It has them running scared," said John O'Neil, the spokesman for Citizens for Representative Government, which organized the petition drive to have the measure put on the ballot in Baltimore County.

Robert C. Schaeffer, president of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, the group that petitioned the measure to the Nov. 6 ballot, said he can already see the effects of his efforts in the debate between the executive candidates.

"They each are out there trying to tell you how tight with a buck they are," said Mr. Schaeffer. "This would never have happened if we hadn't gotten their attention."

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