PROPERTY TAX FOES QUIET AS ASSESSMENT BILL GETS OK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The County Council has set the stage twice in the past two months totest the vigor and momentum of the tax reform movement that commanded the attention of voters last year.

But in a noticeable departurefrom its accustomed role, Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government had nothing to say when County Executive Robert R. Neall won council approval to ignore his first chance of limiting property taxesas well as approval to raise salary limits for political appointees.

"We would like very much to give Neall a chance to establish his own track record," AATRG founder and president Robert Schaeffer said yesterday. "We don't want to start off as nay-sayers."

While Neallestablishes his track record, Schaeffer said, AATRG will concentrateon reorganizing and battling the $807 million tax increase proposed by the state's Linowes Commission on tax reform.

As a first step, the group has changed its name to the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, reflecting its membership with the newly organized Maryland Taxpayers Association. The statewide group has affiliates in 13 counties,all pressing for tax relief.

Tonight, AATA will elect new officers at a meeting scheduled for 7:30 at Baldwin Hall in Severna Park.

But Schaeffer's reluctance to challenge Neall has raised questions about whether AATRG's fervor was exhausted in its failed bid last yearto win passage of a charter amendment limiting county property tax revenues.

Freshman Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn, said he was surprised when AATA did not testify on Neall's first bill. He complained the measure simply adopted the minimum level of tax relief mandated by the state General Assembly.

"Property taxes were one of the biggest issues of the campaign," Middlebrooks said. "But the first bill that came up, everybody vanishes. I certainly would have expected an outcry from that group."

The legislature lowered the statewide cap on rising assessments from 15 percent to 10 percent this year and gave counties the right to set even lower limits. Howard County passed a 5 percent cap last month; Baltimore city and county have adopted 4 percent caps.

In fact, Schaeffer attended the Dec. 17 hearing, but only to denounce "The Lighthizer Years," a $120,000 county press office publication widely mocked as a hagiography of the formerexecutive.

With the council facing a Jan. 1 state deadline to pass the assessment bill and no meeting scheduled until Jan. 7, the measure was approved unanimously.

AATA was again nowhere to be seen last week, when the council passed Neall's bill to raise potential starting salaries for political appointees hired from outside county government.

During the election campaign, Neall said his first legislative priority would be to repeal generous pension benefits Lighthizergranted top county managers.

No action has been taken on that issue. And nobody, including Schaeffer, pointed that out to the council before it passed the salary bill.

The measure -- similar to actiontaken under the Lighthizer administration -- passed 5-2, as the council supported Neall's right to hire "top-quality" people.

Surprised by AATA's silence on the bill, one council member wondered whether the group has been co-opted by Neall, an avowed budget cutter who ranon a classic Republican platform of fiscal restraint.

"Well, it'snot an election year," said the council member, who asked not to be identified. "The man who was in charge of (AATRG) is now a member of the Republican Central Committee. He's a politician now."

As AATRGbuilt political momentum last year, Schaeffer gained personal prominence, including election to the county's GOP central committee. He was appointed to the council's spending affordability committee last year and learned through reporters last week that he had been named to Neall's transition task force on county finances and labor relations.

Although encouraged by Neall's hiring freeze and orders for a no-growth budget, Schaeffer dismisses the notion that he and AATA are giving a free ride to the Neall administration.

"They don't call me up and say, 'What do you think, Bob?' " Schaeffer said. "In fact, they don't call me at all."

AATA spokesman Mac Greeley said the groupdid not give its membership list or election endorsement to either Neall or Democratic contender Theodore J. Sophocleus.

His group will closely watch county labor negotiations, Schaeffer said, to ensure that public employees share the same burdens facing other county residents, Schaeffer said.

"We're not going to agree with everything they do," he said, "but if the bottom line comes out OK, we're not going to argue every little thing."

He said a major argument could develop in May, when Neall unveils his budget and the council passes a property tax rate, which along with an individual's assessment determines the amount of property tax to be paid.

Schaeffer said AATA chose to stay silent on Neall's 10 percent assessment cap to give him achance to make good on a campaign promise to limit property tax revenue growth to 5 percent. Neall has pledged to achieve his target by lowering the property tax rate in proportion to rising assessments.

Schaeffer said the pledge adheres closely to AATRG's charter goal ofcapping revenue growth at 4.5 percent.

But Neall's campaign pledge "was a 5 percent cap on existing properties," allowing additional revenue growth from taxes on new construction, David Almy, the executive's deputy chief of staff, said last month.

The distinction parallels the informal legal opinion issued by Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer a month before the election. His interpretation of AATRG's charter proposal would have rendered the measure virtually meaningless, lowering the projected loss to county revenues in the next fiscal year from about $8 million to $1.5 million.

Plymyer's opinion helped throw the property tax debate into last-minute confusion and Schaeffer partially blames it for AATRG's defeat.

"If they're adopting the Plymyer interpretation, we're obviously not going to agree with it since we fought it tooth and nail during the election," Schaeffer said.

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