Tax-cap specter delays fire complex project


The ballot question proposing a limit on property-tax increases hasn't been approved by voters yet, but the Baltimore County Council last night acted as though it had.

The seven-member council unanimously tabled $400,000 worth of architectural contracts for the planned $20 million fire department complex in Sparrows Point until after the Nov. 6 election.

Councilman Ronald B. Hickernell, D-1st, made the motion to table the agreements, saying that, "should the tax limitation pass, the simple truth is that the [project] will not be built."

Hickernell is the only council member who has not publicly condemned the tax cap. He said he personally opposes the cap, but has refused to recommend its defeat to voters. He faces a tough re-election challenge.

Hickernell said that delaying a vote on the contracts until after the election will not significantly hurt the project. Voting to spend money on something that may not be built is unwise, he said.

The council's action drew no objection from Frank C. Robey Jr., the county administrative officer, who last week recommended approving the contracts when they came up at the council's work session. Robey said he had no warning of Hickernell's action, adding that he did not object last night because parliamentary rules permit no debate on a motion to table.

Gene Neff, the county public works director, said the delay would force a renegotiation of the two contracts.

The project involves building a fire maintenance facility, a fire academy and a Sparrows Point fire station on 26 acres of land given to Baltimore County by Bethlehem Steel in return for breaks on utility taxes.

The general election ballot will contain a proposal petitioned to referendum and approved by the Maryland Court of Appeals that would, if approved, limit the growth of revenues from property tax increases to 2 percent a year, starting with the yield from the current fiscal year.

Fred Homan, the budget director, told the council last night that the cap, if passed, would force a 15-cent reduction in the property tax rate next year, from $2.895 to $2.745 per $100 of assessed value. The cost, he said, would be cutbacks in county services and $28 million less for capital projects, like the Sparrows Point complex. He said the county's bond rating also could suffer.

Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, said he also had no warning of Hickernell's motion and suggested that the fire facilities are so important to the county that "even if the 2 percent passes, we still should go forward. This County Council feels very strongly about going forward with this project."

Hickernell said his action was not designed to frighten voters into defeating the cap. He said that if the cap passes, capital funds will be so limited that he felt he must protect the interests of his Catonsville-Arbutus district by stopping such an expensive project across the county in Dundalk.

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