Fragile Consensus in Towson


Following the lead of Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, the county council is trying to balance tax and service concerns in the coming year's budget. The council is looking to increase the piggyback income tax as Mr. Hayden proposed, but also to shuffle money to reverse cuts made by the executive in the police and fire departments.

Over the next several days, the council will try to solidify its fragile consensus and convince Mr. Hayden of the merits of shifting more money to strengthen police and fire protection. By law, the council can't rearrange the executive's budget without his agreement; it can only cut it. Mr. Hayden may not want to reshuffle a budget deck he's already dealt, but as he himself has said on numerous occasions, these are extraordinary times. If the council can turn budget fat into beef for police and fire, it should be done.

Some recent highly publicized crimes -- the brutal stabbing of an elderly couple and a visitor by a burglar in their rural north-county home Monday night and the recent terrorism of a couple in their exclusive Green Spring Valley home -- point to the need for a strong police force, though some on the council are being persuaded by other factors.

Councilman Douglas B. Riley worries about the increase in burglaries in his Towson neighborhood -- just the type of crime police are having trouble solving due to cutbacks. The force has as many officers on patrol as before, but not as many detectives and lab technicians. Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a former county officer himself, worries about the morale of the police officers, who see their reports gathering dust with no one to follow up on them.

As the council seeks the philosophical middle ground, one member, Melvin G. Mintz, has acted like the errant schoolboy wandering away from the field trip group. He wants to play the same game that councils played before the recession: Cut a meaningless penny off the tax rate -- which he says would save the average household $10 -- and reject the proposed piggyback income-tax increase while stressing that he wants to protect worker pay and city arts grants.

He wants to be the taxpayers' pal, and the friend of workers and regionalism, too. To cut the tax rate, he'd shrink the proposed "rainy day" fund. Without that reserve, if county or state revenues fall short -- a distinct possibility -- county workers could face more furlough days next year. Mr. Mintz knows he wouldn't have to take the heat: Mr. Hayden would be the fall guy.

Mr. Mintz has said he wants to nip the tax rate to "send a message." That's not why he was elected. His job is to responsibly squeeze the most out of a tight budget. If he wants to send a message, let the councilman use Western Union.

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