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Baltimore Co. council members see a pressing need for taxing power


A majority of Baltimore County Council members want the General Assembly to give them the power to increase the county's piggyback tax from 50 percent to 60 percent to erase a projected deficit next year.

Five of the seven members said they favor having that authority, while Council Chairman William A. Howard IV, R-6th, who campaigned in 1990 against any increase in income or property taxes, said a sales tax increase would be "the lesser of three evils." Mr. Howard said he is still reviewing all the options.

Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, Dundalk's most prominent tax protester, is the lone opponent to both of the new tax alternatives proposed by County Executive Roger B. Hayden to the county's legislative delegation.

Mr. Mason said that the state has not done a proper job of managing its own budget, but that he was not supporting any new authority for the county to raise any taxes now. "When Mr. Hayden presents his budget on April 15, then I'll have specific comments," he said, acknowledging that the legislature will be adjourned by April 15 and unable to empower the council.

Despite the support for legislation to permit an income tax increase if needed, no council members were ready to commit to actually raising the so-called piggyback income tax rate. Several did say the county appeared to need new revenue, based on gloomy projections of next year's county budget given Friday by Mr. Hayden.

The executive met with some council members shortly after asking the legislative delegation to support one of two ways of raising major new revenues for the county. Without either a 10 percent increase of the piggyback tax or the proceeds from a 1-cent sales tax increase, the executive said the county would be facing more severe service cuts, possibly layoffs and a deficit next year between $34 and $48 million.

The county already faces a $14 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The $42 million generated by an income tax increase, or the $55 million produced by a sales tax increase, would merely cover the projected deficit, Mr. Hayden said. The county will still not have -- enough money to hire additional teachers for the 4,000 new students expected for next year, or to replace teachers who leave, or to reverse any of this year's cuts.

Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, and the northern county's Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, D-3rd, seemed most supportive of Mr. Hayden's request.

"He's trying to deal with a $60 million shortfall. Yes, we need more revenues. I would like the county to have as much authority as possible," Mr. Riley said.

"We do need revenues to maintain basic services," Mr. Ruppersberger said, adding that Mr. Hayden needs to get his message out to voters.

They, like all the other council members interviewed, said they oppose any property tax increase.

Council members Vincent Gardina, D-5th, and Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, also agree that the county needs more authority to determine its own tax future, though both feel that budget

projections showing this year's revenues down by $27 million might be too pessimistic.

Mr. Gardina said the piggyback tax is more progressive than a sales tax that hurts people when they buy necessities. He said that if the income tax goes up, he wants a promise to lower property taxes when times get better.

His opinion was shared by Catonsville's Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, who said that any income tax increase should have an expiration date.

She said that a combination of higher gasoline taxes and sales taxes would hurt poor people in her district. "I have many families with both people working who are just eking out an existence," she said.

Mr. Gardina warned that although he supports giving the county greater taxing authority, he will not vote for it unless the council's support is unanimous.

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