Land-Rich and Government-Poor


Talbot County, home to 30,000 Eastern Shore residents, has by far the lowest property tax rate in Maryland. Baltimore City struggles along under its rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value. Just about every other county in the state, including Talbot's contiguous neighbors, has a tax rate between $2 and $3. Talbot County's rate? 69 cents.

While getting change back from one's dollar may be a fine marketing campaign for fast-food restaurants, a lot of people in Talbot think it's no way to fund government. The county, a quilt of rural poverty and waterfront gentility, has operated under a tax cap since voters approved one in 1978. A prolonged building boom enlarging the tax base provided ample revenues.

Recession's chill has left Talbot in the cold, however. Its operating budget, shackled by the cap, dropped 14 percent from fiscal year 1990 to 1991, the sharpest decline in the state. Its 1993 capital budget is virtually non-existent. The oddest dichotomy of all is that due to its 400 squiggly miles of waterfront, the county, for its size, has the state's second greatest land wealth, behind only oceanfront Worcester County. Its country inns entice visitors worldwide, its Easton Waterfowl Festival is a key state attraction and St. Michaels' main street is thick with tourist shoppers.

Now, click to the images of service cuts faced by year-round residents, believed to number about three of every four county property owners: The courthouse leaks. The library is shut two days a week. One state trooper protects the county's 250 square miles overnight when the sheriff's department goes off duty. School science texts foretell the coming of Halley's Comet -- in 1986.

Result? Talbot just became one of five counties to exercise new authority to increase the local piggyback income tax, from 50 to 60 percent. It did so merely to offset cuts in state aid, not to puncture a cap that has been approved by voters three times.

A new movement is taking root, however, that would provide government some relief and slide the burden from income to property taxes. The new group, Talbot Residents for a Fair Tax Cap, believes that unless government can afford to maintain schools and roads, companies will have trouble recruiting or retaining workers. Their cause and their formula have yet to be tested.

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