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Local officials present case for more taxes


ANNAPOLIS -- The lament from local governments was the same: no money. For the most part, so was the proposed solution: more taxes.

For more than two hours yesterday in front of a legislative study group, officials from Baltimore, from seven suburban counties, and from county and municipal associations paraded, pleading poverty and asking the state for help.

A group of Democrats, including he county executives of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the council chairman of Howard County and a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, called for raising taxes.

They talked about raising the sales tax, or expanding the sales tax base, or perhaps adopting some sort of "temporary" surcharge, but proposed nothing specific, except raising the gas tax to pay for new transportation projects. Some of them, however, said the distasteful deed must be done even before the nextGeneral Assembly session convenes in January.

Robert R. Neall, the Republican county executive of Anne Arundel County, was the only local official testifying before a joint legislative study committee yesterday who cautioned the legislators to go slow on raising taxes. He described his jurisdiction as "in relatively good shape" financially.

"I don't think a precipitous move toward a tax increase is wise from a political standpoint or wise from a fiscal standpoint," he told lawmakers who have spent the summer studying how all levels of government in Maryland raise tax revenue and spend it.

But Mr. Neall and several other witnesses said local governments have all but exhausted their authority to levy taxes and fees. They said if the public wants to keep current or improved levels of service, the only alternative may be for local governments to turn once again to the increasingly unpopular property taxes.

"Citizens keep asking for more and we try to give it to them, but we only have so many dollars," said William V. Riggs III, the Republican chairman of the board of commissioners in fast-growing Queen Anne's County.

Much of the testimony was aimed at convincing legislators that expected deep cutbacks in state aid programs for local governments will be counterproductive.

Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening urged legislators to broaden the taxing powers of local governments, and said: "Cutting state aid just passes the problem on to us, but really doesn't solve anything."

Almost without exception, the local officials said their governments are being squeezed every bit as hard as the state government by a recessionary drop in revenue. Much of their costs, they added, are uncontrollable due to state or federal mandates for schools, police, jails, health care, social programs or more exotic requirements like identifying non-tidal wetlands or establishing recycling centers.

And they also recited the cuts made during last year's budget crisis, the government positions abolished, the numbers of employees fired, the taxes or fees that were raised, and the borrowing that became necessary.

Even though the chorus from each of the local officials was essentially the same, several legislators said they remained unconvinced that local governments have cut back spending all they can.

Delegate Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, added that he has not heard any support "on the street" for tax increases.

And Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles, said he was not sure "the public wants all the services we, as politicians, think they want."

The strongest reaction came from House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, who labeled the interim legislative study "a complete farce," saying legislators have merely "poked around the fringes of the budget" rather than examining specific programs to see if they are cost-effective.

She said neither state nor local governments have "tightened the

belt as tight as the belt can be tightened."

She also said she and other Republicans would be unlikely to support any tax increase, at least not until a broad range of other measures -- such as privatizing certain government functions, eliminating some economic development programs, or trimming what the state pays for medical care for the poor -- are tried. "I think [a tax increase] is going to be hard to sell in the legislature. A lot of people heard that message last year and are still hearing it," she said. "There's a lot of fear about voting for a tax increase."

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