Tax protesters plan to regroup General Assembly is new target of heat


Undaunted by their unsuccessful campaigns to cap property taxes in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, some tax protesters plan to regroup and spread their message throughout Maryland.

The protesters, who failed to persuade voters to adopt strict limits on property taxes last month, hope to build a regional pressure group to push the General Assembly to lower taxes.

Robert C. Schaeffer, who led the Anne Arundel tax protest, said he hopes a taxpayers' federation will be able to influence the state legislature on broader issues of government waste and unfair tax laws. "We've never been a single-issue group," he said.

Schaeffer, along with fellow protesters David Boyd, Harold Lloyd and John O'Neill in Baltimore County, pushed unsuccessfully for charter amendments to limit property tax revenue growth in their respective counties. Still, their vigorous campaigns contributed to the adoption of state and local caps on property assessment increases. They also won campaign promises by new office-holders to hold down spending.

Links, some of them admittedly "tentative," have been made with angry taxpayers in Talbot, Calvert, Garrett, Prince George's, Montgomery, Carroll and Howard counties, according to Schaeffer and O'Neill.

One item that appears likely to top their winter agenda, Schaeffer said, is lobbying the General Assembly on the Linowes Commission proposal to revamp the taxation system by increasing taxes on wealthier Marylanders.

The Linowes plan would move away from the reliance on property taxes to more progressive taxes in an effort to raise $800 million in new revenue for state and local governments. The plan, which would provide more aid for poorer subdivisions, calls for increases in income and sales taxes, along with a 2 percent levy on cars and boats.

Schaeffer believes the recommendations would worsen the current economic recession, while ignoring the basic issue of wasteful government spending.

"They have completely overlooked the fact that before you raise taxes, you have to justify to the taxpayer that you have eliminated every dime of frivolous spending," the retired Severna Park resident said.

Property taxes, which prompted the recent spate of tax protests, continue to be a source of frustration and concern.

Schaeffer said he believes many Anne Arundel taxpayers will be appeased, at least for a year, with new County Executive Robert R. Neall's promise to impose a voluntary 5 percent cap on yearly increases in property tax revenues.

In Baltimore County, however, Boyd is now fighting for a rollback of property tax increases that hit his central county neighbors last year.

Boyd, a Towson State University professor who launched the local movement after last year's assessment notices were sent out, said he has called a meeting this week of his Property Taxpayers United group's board to draft a call for a tax rollback for his north county neighbors. They received no relief for their uncapped assessment increases last year.

"This is very much as we suspected it would be," Boyd said of the current round of assessment notices, which were sent yesterday to a third of the homeowners in eastern Baltimore County. "They're scared to run the east up so high," he said, referring to what he believes were higher increases placed on central county properties last year.

State assessment officials, however, said the average assessment increase in eastern Baltimore County this year is 7.8 percent, compared with a 7.9 percent average increase in the central county last year.

County assessment supervisor Robert L. Dowling said the average countywide assessment increase was actually lower last year, at 6.4 percent, compared with an 8.7 percent increase countywide this year. Homes from Harford Road east are due for the 93,000 notices being distributed.

Of course, all Baltimore County homeowners' assessments will not rise more than 4 percent when the county actually calculates their tax bills in July because of the local assessment cap enacted by then-Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and the County Council.

But O'Neill, who organized the nearly successful petition drive to limit yearly revenue increases from property taxes to 2 percent, isn't impressed. He's afraid, he said, that if the Linowes Commission recommendations are accepted, the local assessment caps will be dropped. If that happens, he said, it will be back to business as usual in the property tax wars.

Donald C. Mason, the Dundalk tax protester who won a County Council seat, still has his own single-minded goal. He wants to get the county to lower its property tax rate to match the so-called constant yield rate.

That figure, announced each Feb. 14, documents the number of cents that would have to be subtracted from the tax rate to compensate for any rise in assessments. For Baltimore County last year, the rate would have had to drop from $2.895 per $100 of assessed value to about $2.73 to make up for the assessment increase.

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