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Study shows inequity of Baltimore Co. tax cap officials see no need for change


Baltimore County's elected officials say they have no plans to change the county's 4 percent cap on property tax assessment increases, despite a study showing that the cap benefits owners of expensive homes much more than those in poorer areas.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he has heard no complaints from County Council members about the cap, and argued that it has helped prevent the kind of steep assessment increases in some areas that sparked the latest property tax protest movement three years ago.

Of the six council members interviewed yesterday, several said they found the study by the county's finance office interesting.

"It's a different way of looking at [the issue]," said incoming council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, D-3rd, but neither he nor his colleagues expressed any sentiment for changing it.

The seventh council member, Catonsville's Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The council approved a one-year extension of the assessment cap on Sept. 21.

Outgoing Chairman William A. Howard IV, R-6th, left the door open for change, however, saying he will be watching to see whether the public changes it's attitude on the cap now that the pattern of benefits has been revealed.

"Maybe a fair trade-off would be to bring more fixed-income and elderly people in under the circuit breaker," he said, referring to a state property tax program that reduces the burden on older, handicapped and low-income property owners.

The General Assembly passed a law in 1990 setting a 10 percent statewide cap on yearly assessment increases, and local jurisdictions can set the cap even lower.

Baltimore County, a hotbed of anti-tax activity, quickly enacted a 4 percent cap. It was joined by Baltimore City and earlier this month by Anne Arundel County. Charles, Howard, Kent and Prince George's counties have 5 percent caps, and Talbot County has a 0 percent cap.

Baltimore County will lose about $15 million in revenues because of the cap -- in a year when the county budget has a $31.7 million hole in it -- largely the result of state budget cuts.

The study of the cap shows that 4 percent of the county's homeowners get 25 percent of the benefits, and that homeowners in the wealthier northern areas of the county get far larger breaks than those in working-class Dundalk and Halethorpe.

For example, in some north county areas, homeowners are averaging almost $254 in tax credits, while in Halethorpe the average credit is about $39.

Some 580 owners of homes with an average value of $500,000 are getting tax breaks of $1,000 this year.

"Well, so what?" was the response of David Boyd, the founder and president of Property Taxpayers United, the northern county group that led the revolt in 1990. "The people who have bigger homes are paying more taxes, aren't they?"

Harold Lloyd, another tax protest leader, said people in Dundalk and Essex need and like the cap. "Believe me, those people are every bit as grateful for the protection as people up here," Mr. Lloyd said from his Hereford home.

Despite the disparities and the county's need for new revenues, Mr. Ruppersberger strongly defended the cap he helped enact in 1990, when Dennis F. Rasmussen was county executive. Mr. Ruppersberger will assume the rotating chairmanship of the council next month.

He said his support is not motivated by the benefits north county constituents receive. He said inequities built into the property tax system are "what started the tax revolt. I think that's still a major issue."

The assessment cap allows homeowners to know what to

expect on their property tax bill, and how to budget, he said.

Mr. Ruppersberger was one of only two council members to survive the 1990 election, which saw angry voters sweep Mr. Rasmussen from office, too.

Dundalk's Donald C. Mason, D-7th, said the $49 his lower-income constituents may get from the cap each year is just as important to them as the hundreds of dollars homeowners in Jacksonville or Owings Mills are saving.

"I'm benefiting, too, down here in my little rowhouse," he said.

Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, who represents Essex and White Marsh, agreed, saying, "I know it gives wealthier &r; homeowners a bigger break, but it's still saving lower- and middle-income property owners something. I don't see us changing it."

Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, agreed that with Mr. Ruppersberger taking over next month as chairman, the chances for changing the cap are slim.

"Ruppersberger is a big proponent, and next year is an election year," Mr. Riley said. He has no plans to try to change the cap either, he said, although he found the information on benefits interesting. Towson residents save an average of $141.41 per year from the cap, the study said.

Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, who represents Pikesville and Randallstown, said he has always been critical of the disparities in the property tax. He said the cap "Does exactly what it's intended to do -- keep a cap on folks' tax bills." The survey said his constituents save an average of $138.16 per year.

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