A poor turnout for a hearing on county property taxes had Spending Affordability Committee members wondering whether Anne Arundel County's taxpayers' movement had died or been co-opted by County Executive Robert R. Neall.
The only person who showed up at Tuesday's meetingat Glen Burnie High School, Richard Jones of Pasadena, came an hour late and was looking for another meeting.But Jones decided to stay and testify anyway, much to the relief of committee members.
"I've got four kids and I'm having trouble on what the county's paying me," said Jones, a county building inspector. "Now they're talking about the possibility of layoffs. If they want to do that, fine, but cut all the fat out first."
Committee members were so desperate for testimony at one point that they asked two reporters to give their perspective on what county residents can afford to pay in taxes.
The turnout prompted members to re-evaluate their work.
"This indicates to me that there's not a lot of people worrying about affordability," member Richard Derrick said.
Member Robert Douglas countered, "I don't think the committee's useless. It's an ongoing revolution. There's a county executive whose policies are a lot different than the previous county executive. There's another committee working on this. We're in step."
The group, formed by charter amendment last year, began meeting in January, too late to have much effect on this year's budget. The members, all of whom have financial backgrounds,studied figures dating back to 1980 and determined that county spending had averaged 5.63 percent of the total personal income of county residents.
Using that figure, committee members determined that county spending should not exceed 5.5 percent of the total personal income of county residents. That would have made for a fiscal 1992 budget of about $633 million. Neall recommended a $616.6 million budget, $800,000 less than last year.
Faced with further cuts in state funding, Neall is negotiating another $10 million in budget cuts with department heads.
"If there isn't enough money to go around to establish an affordability limit, then what's the point of our recommendations?" committee chairman Bennett Shaver asked.
Douglas agreed. "Life's too short to spend the amount of time we have the last nine months if it doesn't help," he said.
The members decided to study their formula to see if they could make it more relevant. They agreed to continue to meet because, they said, taxpayers will need a watchdog when the economy improves and county income increases.
Shaver also serves on the Property Tax Study Commission, which is looking for wayto reduce the county's reliance on property taxes. Neall agreed to appoint that commission in exchange for a promise from the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association that members wouldn't oppose his fiscal 1992 budget.
Neall appointed four AATA members to the commission, including Robert Schaeffer, the group's leader.
"Bob (Neall) was tryingto take the steam out of them by making them part of the process," Douglas said.
In the meantime, the Spending Affordability Committeehas postponed its final two public hearings. Instead, members will be present at Neall's meetings to take testimony from the public.
Neall says he wants to know what residents' priorities are before the county develops a proposed 1993 budget.
The meetings are scheduledfor Sept. 17 at Arundel High School, Sept. 19 at Glen Burnie High School, Sept. 24 at Northeast High School and Sept. 26 at Southern HighSchool.
"There's got to be some way we can let people know that there's a committee here that's working hard and needs their input," Shaver said. "We will be at all four Neall meetings, and we will welcome any comments we get from anyone."
The committee will make recommendations to Neall and the County Council in January.