Taxes: a non-solution solution


Q: What's 100 county employees at the bottom of the ocean?

A: A good start.

That joke is making the rounds in Towson these days. It reflects the views of many of those in the anti-tax faction of Baltimore County. No amount of pain for the county work force seems too high in their view.

Need to find $25 million to forestall a proposed piggyback tax increase in the county?

No problem, the tax protesters say. Save up to $8 million by wiping out pay increases in any form, including step or merit raises, for all county workers. Make maintenance and clerical workers on 35-hour weeks work 40 hours, which would enable the government to dump some of them. Cut down the number of county holidays. Delete the contingency fund the county executive budgeted to, among other things, lessen the threat of employee furloughs next year, as were imposed this year. That's the anti-tax faction's budget solution in a nutshell.

Must changes be brought to the business of government? Sure. Should people who, in good faith, came to work for the county swallow all the cost efficiencies? No.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden is gradually making some of the changes. He isn't filling 1,000 vacancies -- a good-sized small business in itself -- that were created through attrition and early retirement incentives. He is also reducing the county subsidy for employee health insurance from 92 percent to 85 percent of costs, after a study commission found that the public sector was generous compared to private enterprise.

Suffice it to say that most people working in the county bureaucracy aren't getting filthy rich. Most of their salaries pale by comparison with private-sector jobholders. Do all county workers perform their jobs enthusiastically while providing satisfaction to the public? Probably on a par with companies whose work forces are as large and diverse as the county's.

Does Mr. Hayden need to continue bettering the bureaucracy's response and performance? Of course. Before the recent rash of retirements, at least, Baltimore County -- Maryland's fourth largest jurisdiction -- had the third largest government work force per capita. It was much fatter in this respect than comparatively sized Montgomery or Prince George's counties, according to the Maryland Association of Counties.

But if the anti-tax coalition's one-stop solution to Towson's budget ills is to freeze wages, slice benefits and raise hours for county workers in one fell swoop, they'd best return to the drawing board.

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