North County eyes wrong hog


I saw a pickup truck traveling up Interstate 83, headed for "North County," that expanse of rolling hills, farmland and subdivisions north of Sparks and south of the Mason-Dixon. Tethered to the tailgate of the truck was an eye-catching sign. There were two excellent caricatures -- one of William Donald Schaefer, our lord governor, and one of Dennis Rasmussen, the Baltimore County executive. The heads of both these men were attached to the bodies of pigs. The sign promoted: "Hog Roast, November 6."

I assumed this represented some kind of tax protest, Nov. 6 being Election Day and Election Day promising to be a big day for the tax rebellion now building across the land. I learned later that the pickup truck, and its driver, had just left Saturday's tax protest in Towson.

Anyway, the truck was headed for "North County," that section of Baltimore County whose inhabitants probably wouldn't mind seceding from the rest of the county and declaring a new seat of government in Hereford. If you haven't heard, there is a tax protest in Baltimore County, and Mr. Rasmussen is seen as a major villain in the county's "tax woes," however hard that is for Baltimore City residents to understand. Throughout North County, the land of pleasant living, we see campaign posters for Rasmussen's Republican opponent. And the initiative for a 2 percent cap on annual property tax receipts seems to have come from North County, making Question T on the ballot an angry shout from the woods.

"A bunch of older, comfortable people living on multiacre lots who don't want to spend money on county schools and services," is how a young woman characterized the people behind the grass-roots tax protest.

But, before you kiss off all North Countians as narrow-minded outlanders, I must say a word about these fine, hard-working, horse-loving, solitude-seeking, four-wheel-driving, wood stove-stoking people.

Years ago, during a public hearing on a proposed commuter rail line to Hunt Valley, a man stood in a crowded elementary school auditorium and wondered why the rail line would not be extended as far north as Upperco.

"I'm from that silent, always ignored minority known as North County residents," he said. "You don't hear from us much."

He went on and on, saying that he and his friends in North County felt neglected. I remember him constantly referring to "you people down in Towson," as if the county seat were some remote principality and North County but a forgotten colony. He felt the rail line should have run clear up to Parkton; the fact that it wasn't provided further proof that North County taxpayers could not get anything for their money -- not from the feds, not from the state, and not from "you people down in Towson."

He was a lone voice in the woods. Population and politics dictated that, if there were to be a new commuter rail line, it would have to serve the most densely populated areas of the county. As a result, North County would have to wait a long, long time for rail service.

The forces of population constitute a dynamic of political life in Baltimore County, a huge county, a geographic claw around Baltimore City. The county is diverse -- from congested residential and commercial strips to rolling hills and farmland. Most of the remaining open spaces are in North County. The people who live there fight to keep it that way. They like the privacy, the quiet living. They want their county to provide schools for their kids and to keep the roads clear in the winter.

That's about it. The less government, the better the government.

I know North County folks, and this is exactly what they say when the subject turns to government. They complain about taxes -- even though their property tax rate is still attractively low -- and, 20 or 30 miles from Towson, they either can't see where all those taxes go, or refuse to believe they go toward anything but welfare cheats. So, they assume their taxes are wasted -- even though Baltimore County still can boast solid schools and public services after having absorbed millions of dollars in federal funding cuts during the Reagan era.

Sure, there's waste in Towson. Bet on it. But, as these things go, the government Baltimore County provides is probably a pretty good buy, and the quality of life for most people remains relatively high. Especially in North County.

So what are those fine folk complaining about? If they want to stage a revolt, they ought to drive their pickup trucks to Washington and circle the Capitol. There's a lot more hog to roast down there.

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