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Raising the Piggyback Tax for the Public Good

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An acquaintance met me in an elevator the other day, and asked, "Ben, do you feel like ducking for cover?" He was, of course, referring to the published reaction to my having voted to raise the income tax for Carroll residents. I laughed and replied, "Yes, I'd better keep my head down." As the day passed, I had an increasing need to take those words back because I don't feel like taking cover -- not for doing something that was absolutely in the best interests of most Carroll countians.

In fact, I want to speak out even more forcefully on the facts and issues which led to my vote. I want to say, "No, I'm not ducking." To those who use an anonymous newspaper "Hotline" to spread a dark and sour view of life in Carroll, I say, "Get a life. Think of something beyond your own interests, or disinterests." If you think that elected officials don't normally speak this way about potential voters, you're right. But I think that it's time that some of us do, rather than trying so hard not to offend those philosophy is clearly, "I've got mine, so don't expect me or my government to be concerned about anything else."

Such voices have been heard since the birth of our nation. Had they been heeded, we'd have no tradition of public education -- education would be only for those whose parents could pay. We'd have no public libraries -- books would be reserved for those who could pay. The enjoyment of recreation and nature would have been reserved only for those who owned the land.

Those who boarded the Mayflower, and the millions who have followed since, have given us a better heritage -- a heritage which has given credence to the notion of "the public good." One of the very first actions of Carroll's newly established government, taken in 1837, was to spend taxes to construct an almshouse, which we now know and enjoy as the Carroll County Farm Museum. Hardly the action of a people concerned only with their narrow personal interests.

The Carroll County that we know today -- this lovely, nurturing community -- didn't just happen. A lot of hard work, a lot of caring and a lot of taxpayer dollars have shaped what we enjoy today. Consider the following:

We have an excellent public school system. By any standard, the Carroll County public school system shines in comparison to those of Maryland's other counties. Expensive? Yes, approximately $80 million in the next budget year; but compared to the costs in all Maryland counties, we spend less than the state average.

Do we blame Carroll's grocers because milk costs $2-plus a gallon? Are Carroll's gasoline dealers to blame because gas costs more this year than last? Or do we understand that everything costs more everywhere?

Does our school system deserve some criticism? Yes. It has had a reputation for administrative arrogance in recent years, but is now improving under the direction of a new superintendent.

Can it do as well or better with less money in the future? It will have to. The days of 10 percent to 12 percent annual increases are ended. From now on, the best our school system can expect are increases of 3 percent to 6 percent.

What does this mean for our children and taxpayers? It means we owe it to our community to get through the hard times without bitterness or rancor. My prediction? The commissioners, school board members and school employees will work together to do the best with what we have.

Another shining feature of Carroll's community is our public library system. Does the average citizen appreciate our libraries? We must. We have the highest usage rate in the state and the cost per use is one of the lowest. It is a system to be proud of. And yet, it too must find ways to economize further.

Our parks and recreation system represents a wise and beautiful investment of Carroll's portion of the state's property transfer tax. If you want to see the benefit of public ballfields, watch the youth leagues in action. . . .

Carroll's elderly population numbers some 20,000. Twenty-five years ago, much of that population would have been homebound for lack of transportation, resulting in medical neglect and social isolation. Today, Carroll operates six senior centers, and contracts with Carroll Transit, a non-profit transportation service, which last year carried some 60,000 riders. As a result, our seniors are healthier and more socially active within their communities.

The rural beauty of Carroll's countryside is something many of us appreciate, and would at least hope to preserve. Carroll leads the state in preserving farmland for agricultural use. The development rights to 21,000 acres have been purchased, using state and county dollars. . . .

Carroll County is a great place to live and raise our families. Each of us has a stake in Carroll's future, all 140,000 of us, whether old or young, native or newcomer. . . . Our challenge is to do as well, or better, with less than we had counted upon. We don't do that by dismantling those structures that have made our community the attractive place it is. This is no time to "throw mama from the train" -- or our schools, libraries, parks, senior centers or farmlands.

We'll get through this period by pulling together, not apart. We'll do it by embracing the challenge of doing more with less. We'll do it by offering our time and efforts, rather than just our criticisms. As my grandmother often commented, "There are them that do, and there are them who criticize them that do." I don't know that her grammar was perfect, but her point sure was! . . .

Prior to 1991, the state of Maryland returned better than half of all state property taxes it collected in Carroll County. The county PTC used our tax dollars, which went to Annapolis and were returned as "local aid," to fund services. Were the state still returning our property tax money, we would have $12 million more in revenue for next year. There would have been no deficit, and there would have been funds available to build schools without increasing taxes. . . .

The people who insist that Carroll's budget is full of "fat" and its bureaucracy bloated are wrong. Carroll has one employee for every 211 residents. Howard County, by comparison, has one employee for every 114 residents, almost twice as many. Frederick County has one for every 134, and Harford County has one for every 184. Carroll County's work force, as the numbers show, is not bloated. Neither is it pampered. . . .

I'll conclude by reminding Carroll countians of two statements that I made repeatedly during last year's campaign. First, correcting Carroll's problems is a matter of will, as in will we or won't we? The vote to build the schools was a "yes" vote, as in "Yes, we will."

Second, when asked my policy on taxation, I said, "Not one dollar more than is necessary, but not one dollar less than is necessary." The increase in the piggyback tax was necessary. To deny that would have been an act of political cowardice. So, to my friend on the elevator, I say "We'll live with it."

W. Benjamin Brown is a Carroll County commissioner.

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