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County Executive Robert R. Neall still hopes to provide property taxrelief to county residents, but he conceded that tough economic times will make it hard to keep that pledge.

"I can tell you property tax relief is a heck of a lot easier to give during good times than in bad times," Neall told residents and county officials at a hearing on budget priorities Tuesday night at Arundel High School. "The current budget is slightly lower than the budget I came in on, so we're doing what we can."

Neall made his comments in response to testimony from Bob Thomsonof Crownsville, who said his property taxes have gone up 36 percent in the five years since he retired, while his income has stayed the same.

"Property taxes have become quite a burden on us," Thomson said.

Neall said he has appointed a committee to study alternatives to property taxes, and is considering providing property tax relief to people on low and fixed income. He said he is also considering cutting theproperty tax rate.

But a projected $10 million cut in stateaid will make the next year a difficult one, he said.

"I regret to tell you we're in for a bumpy ride," Neall said. "But despite the economy, we're going to move forward. . . . And we've got to do it without sacrificing the needs of our customers."

Neall had pledged last year to hold any increase in county property tax revenues to 5 percent over the previous year, a pledge he broke earlier this year whenother revenue sources declined. Tax protesters have remained silent to give Neall a chance to reign in county spending.

Four people testified at Tuesday's hearing, the first of four Neall will conduct tohear residents' views on budget priorities. Others who spoke wanted the county to do more for gifted and talented students and to protectflood plains and wetlands. Albert Johnston of Severna Park praised the county's gypsy moth eradication program.

The county will use the information to develop a proposed fiscal 1993 budget. Officials also will conduct a random survey of county residents and will accept written testimony until Sept. 30.

Other hearings are scheduled for tonight at Glen Burnie High School; Sept. 24 at Northeast High School;and Sept. 26 at Southern High School. All meetings will begin at 7:30 p.m. Department heads and other county employees will be available to discuss concerns beginning 6 p.m.

In addition to the four residents who spoke, about a dozen residents filled out individual complaint forms created especially for the meetings. Several residents spokewith department heads directly about their problems.

Public WorksDirector Parker Andrews said he spoke with three residents. Two wanted to join the gypsy moth program and another wanted sidewalks repaired.

"I think any time you can develop a forum with the public to hear what's of concern to them, it's invaluable to us," Andrews said.

Neall said he expects attendance at the events to improve.

"I think it will take time to catch on," Neall said. "I think a couple ofyears from now, people are going to see this as a real opportunity to come in and talk with a department head without an appointment."

Anyone needing lift-equipped transportation to the meetings should call 974-8639.

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