With the showdown between Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus and Republican Robert R. Neall coming on the heels of an economic recession, businesspeople aren't mincing words about what they expect.

The county's chief executive should promote commerce, assist small businesses, sell the county, offer employees affordable housing and transportation to work, and, above all, pull the reins on government spending.

"Probably the biggest thing is fiscal responsibility," said N. Scott Gardiner, president of General Business Services, Severna Park small business tax accountants. "All businesses are bracing for a softening of the economy, whether retail or commercial. They're looking to county government to make sure their spending is on track with the overall economy."

During a Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, both Neall and Sophocleus outlined ways to boost economic development. They agreed that 1980s-style spending is a thing of the past.

Neall likened the government to a "great big car with a great big engine and the fuel line isn't big enough. We don't have the luxury of spending money at the rate we did over the last eight years."

He proposed appointing a "waste-watching team" that would include businesspeople.

Sophocleus pledged to save money by cementing a strained relationship between the county and Annapolis and coordinating services, possibly through an executive committee.

Neither candidate supports legislation restricting property tax revenues, a proposal that troubles many in the business community. The charter amendment as interpreted by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government would cap revenue growth at 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. An interpretation by the county Office of Law, however, would reduce the effect of the cap by excluding revenue generated by new growth from its limitations.

"The tax cap is an over-response to bad fiscal policy," said Neall. "I don't think arbitrary statistical caps make sense in our society. I don't think the government should grow faster than your ability to pay for it. If that was done in the past eight years, the budget would be tens of millions less than it is today."

Sophocleus, too, opposes the proposal, though he defended the rate of spending during his two County Council terms.

"We were not buying ties and shoes," he said. Rather, the county was meeting residents' insistent demands for schools and police and fire protection.

Many businesspeople fear that if voters pass the tax cap, county officials might look to business to make up the expected shortfall in income.

"If the tax referendum passes, it's going to be one of the first things the county executive is faced with," said Jeannette Wessel, executive vice president of the 750-member Anne Arundel Trade Council. The group believes that education and government services would suffer under a tax cap.

"Will new taxes be collected?" asked Wessel. "If so, who are the likely targets? It's the business community. It's just going to be a tough road to hoe with that kind of limitation."

During an economic slowdown, officials should look for new ways to sell the county and consider privatizing more government work, said Neall, who has called for a non-governmental economic development commission.

Both candidates vowed to include business leaders in policy-making.

"I don't like surprises and I'm not going to spring any surprises on you," Neall said.

Sophocleus assured businesspeople he would continue to seek their advice on economic development.

That was good news to Penny Chandler, executive director of the Annapolis chamber.

"That's something we have lobbied for for quite a while," she said. "All groups should play more of a role."

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