Charter Board considers spending controls, then delays decision


WESTMINSTER -- The Carroll Charter Board engaged in a convoluted debate last night over imposing some type of control over county spending, then deferred a decision until Carroll's budget director can offer advice on the effects of various limits.

The nine-member board, which is writing the document that could become Carroll government's constitution if it is approved by voters, agreed in principle that some form of taxation limit should be included in the charter. But they haven't decided the best method to achieve that goal.

The debate centered on whether limits should be placed on how much a county council could increase revenue from property taxes by adjusting the tax rate from year to year, or whether the county's overall spending should be restricted on a yearly basis.

Members have discussed restricting any increase in property tax revenue or overall operating budget spending to increases in the Baltimore area's Consumer Price Index, which is a measure of inflation. The CPI increased about 3 percent last year, said board member Charles O. Fisher Sr.

Some board members -- and County Attorney Chuck Thompson, who is advising the board -- said that placing a limit on overall spending would be too restrictive.

A county council would have no control over many federal and state mandates, which require increased spending, said Mr. Thompson. Allowing only 3 percent growth might not be sufficient to cover those costs, or other expenses outside the council's control, such as increased Board of Education costs, said Mr. Thompson and Mr. Fisher.

Board member Barbara S. F. Pease contended that placing a cap solely on property tax revenue growth would allow the council to generate increased revenue from other sources, such as the piggyback income tax or building fees, without similar restrictions.

The council would be able to override any cap with a vote of four out of the five members. Such an override could be necessary to allow for special projects, such as the creation of a police force or countywide trash service.

The charter board has taken the following action on issues tha residents highlighted at three public hearings:

* It voted, 5-4, against term limits on the five elected county council members. Some residents and board members advocated limiting council members to two four-year terms to avoid "career" politicians who become entrenched in their jobs.

Charter board members who opposed term limits argued that residents could simply vote out of office those representatives who were not performing satisfactorily. They argued that competent representatives favored by their constituents should not be forced out of office by term limits. The proposed $7,500 annual salary for council members would be too low to influence residents to pursue the job as a career, they said.

* It modified a provision allowing voters to subject a tax law to referendum but declined to make all laws enacted by the council subject to referendum, as advocated by several residents.

The modification allows residents to petition to referendum any law imposing a tax, but excludes a law imposing a tax rate change. Other laws that would be excluded from referendum XTC include those appropriating money for current spending, delineating council districts and adjudicating zoning matters.

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