All seven Baltimore County Council seats are up for grabs this year and, while issues vary with each district, many races are being dominated by a single issue -- the tax cap.
"The tax cap could well define this election. It stands out as a vote between people who are satisfied with government spending and people who are upset with it," said Patricia Fullagar, a Republican candidate in the 5th District.
Republicans in all seven districts face uphill battles because of voter registration numbers that heavily favor Democrats. In the 5th District, for instance, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1.
Particularly tight races are expected in the 1st and 4th districts, where Republican challengers who favor the property tax revenue ceiling are running against incumbent Democrats who oppose it.
In the 4th District, which covers Towson, Lutherville and Parkville, Republican Douglas Riley is running against Councilwoman Barbara F. Bachur, a three-term incumbent with a reputation for solid constituent service.
In the 1st District, which covers Catonsville, Arbutus and Baltimore Highlands, Democratic Councilman Ronald B. Hickernell is running against Berchie Lee Manley, a civic activist. Both Mr. Riley and Mrs. Manley see the presence of the tax cap question on the ballot as a sign of the administration's failure to adequately control spending.
"I sit in on meetings with people from all over the county who are just crying for some kind of property tax relief," said Mrs. Manley, a 61-year-old homemaker and civic activist.
But Mr. Hickernell and Ms. Bachur say that while the property tax system needs to be reformed, the proposal to limit increases in property tax revenue to 2 percent annually is ill-conceived because it will crimp county efforts to provide services.
Mr. Hickernell said he considers the property tax "a terrible tax" because it means those over 55, who often own substantial property, pay a disproportionate share of the costs for government.
But he says unless the General Assembly permits increases in the county share of the state piggyback tax, the cap will mean cutbacks of badly needed services.
"It could take three years, four years, or five years before you see the impact of the cap, but it will be there, and it will be insidious," said Mr. Hickernell, 47.
Other issues have arisen in the races in the 1st and 4th districts as well.
Mr. Riley, for instance, charges that Ms. Bachur has become lackadaisical and has failed to represent her district on key issues, such as containing the business district in Towson and approval of Towson Commons, a 10-story retail and shopping complex planned for York Road.
"She's not been out in front on any of these issues. People don't know where she's been," he said. "She's just lost her fire for public service."
Ms. Bachur disputes that, saying she has remained in close touch with her district and has consistently attended community meetings and neighborhood functions.
Her work with developers in Towson Commons helped reduce the size of the project, she said. She also has been instrumental in maintaining the integrity of residential communities in Towson that border the business district, she said.
"I have held those boundaries, and I have strengthened them," Ms. Bachur said.
In the 1st District, Mr. Hickernell won a close primary battle Sept. 11 over George A. Abendschoen, who in his first run for office emphasized the negative effects of growth on the district.
Mrs. Manley also is targeting concerns about development, with calls for tighter restrictions on developers and for revamping the appeals process so that communities that challenge zoning decisions with the Board of Appeals can be protected from lawsuits by developers.
"Growth has just been occurring much too rapidly," she said.
But Mr. Hickernell said the impending recession, coupled with the building moratorium placed in communities with overcrowded schools, has put developers on the ropes and made development "yesterday's issue."
"The worst occupation you can be in right now is in real estate and development," he said.
He added that the amount of state and county park lands in the district has doubled over the past four years and that more tracts have been downzoned -- reducing the permitted density of development -- in his district than in any other.
He said he is confident of victory, having stepped up his campaigning after the primary with door-to-door visits, literature drops and telephoning voters for support.
In two of the five other council races, Republican challengers face Democrats who defeated incumbent councilmen in the Sept. 11 primary.
In the 7th District, taxpayer protest leader Donald Mason is running against Lawrence O. Williams Jr. Mr. Mason, a 63-year-old retired Bethlehem Steel worker, unseated Councilman Dale T. Volz by a 2-1 margin after a campaign that focused on the need for property tax reductions.
In the 5th District, Ms. Fullagar is squaring off against Vincent Gardina in what could be a tight race. Mr. Gardina, a computer analyst with American Telephone & Telegraph Co., upset four-term Councilman Norman W. Lauenstein Sept. 11 after a primary campaign in which he emphasized the need for controlled growth.
In the 2nd District, Councilman Melvin G. Mintz faces a challenge by George W. Murphy, a civic activist concerned about the environment.
In the 3rd District, Council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III is running against Henry Merchant and in the 6th District, Councilman William R. Evans is running against William A. Howard IV.