Whenever Howard County residents pick up a telephone, flip a light switch or run to the Mall in Columbia for lunch, they're crossing paths with the county's three biggest property taxpayers.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Rouse Co. and Bell Atlantic together poured $10.7 million in property taxes into the county's coffers -- the amount of tax that would be paid on 5,164 homes with a market value of $200,000 each.
But Howard homeowners -- not its businesses -- still paid 64 percent of all county property taxes, about $107.7 million. And therein lies a challenge for the county's financial officials.
Unlike businesses, most private homeowners don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the services they need, including schools, roads, sewers, water and police protection, said Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator.
Yet in recent years, the county's business tax base has eroded -- from about 24 percent of Howard's overall tax base in 1988 to below 20 percent today. Much of the decline has come from continued growth in residential development, coupled with stagnation in commercial development.
Those factors add urgency to the county's goal of having businesses account for 25 percent of the tax base.
"We need businesses in Howard County. These businesses pay more in taxes than it costs to provide services," said County FTC Executive Charles I. Ecker. "The average taxpayer in Howard County does not pay enough in property tax and income tax to pay for the kind of services that he or she receives."
The county's top 20 taxpayers are all businesses, including such familiar names as Giant Food Inc., the fourth biggest taxpayer.
In all, the grocery chain paid $921,832 in taxes in the fiscal year that ended June 30. It paid $469,554 on equipment in its six county stores and $452,278 under the name of Warex Jessup Inc. for its regional warehouse-distribution center in Jessup.
But other big taxpayers are so obscure that even county tax collectors aren't sure what they represent -- other than several hundred thousand dollars in taxes every year.
Two sister companies -- Maryland Associates Limited and DOH Inc. -- together were the sixth largest taxpayer in the county, having paid $760,757 last year.
Maryland Associates Limited owns the Seasons, the 1,088-unit North Laurel apartment complex known until recently as Whiskey Bottom Apartments. DOH gets its name from the three apartment complexes it owns: Dorsey's Apartments, Oakland Meadows and Hannibal Grove, with 531 apartments total.
Both companies are owned by the Boston-based Berkshire Group, which has 53 properties in the Southeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Although county residents apparently feel they're owed special recognition when they address a county panel by saying, "I'm a )) Howard County taxpayer," there's little magic in handing over the biggest tax checks each year, say the county's Big Three.
"We're one of the major private employers in the county, but I don't think the county sees it that way," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. senior vice president and general manager of Columbia.
The company -- which pays most of its taxes through two subsidiaries, The Mall in Columbia and Howard Research and Development Corp. -- said it doesn't get any special favors from government, though it's always treated fairly, Mr. Scavo said.
When BGE builds an electric substation or maintenance facility, "we have to follow the same process as everyone else," said John F. Miller Jr., who represents the company before several local governments, including Howard's. The utility paid nearly $4.7 million in taxes for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
"I have to tell you that Chuck Ecker has a huge smile on his face when I bring that check each July," Mr. Miller said.
Some homeowners might argue that they help pay those millions in taxes by being one of BGE's 81,900 Howard County customers.
Unlike Howard, many Maryland counties levy an energy tax on power or gas sold by utilities, something utilities refer to as a "nuisance tax." Not surprisingly, Mr. Miller believes the county is better able to attract business without such a tax.
Consistently the biggest taxpayer in Howard and other Baltimore-area jurisdictions, BGE has an assessment -- based on the market value of the entire company and its earning potential -- that is calculated by state assessors and divided among the counties in which it does business.
Unlike the Rouse Co., which pays most of its taxes on land, BGE and other utilities -- such as the three interstate pipeline companies on Howard's top 20 taxpayers' list -- pay most of their taxes on equipment. That's a good deal for the county, Mr. Wacks said, because such equipment requires hardly any public services.
Equipment also is taxed more heavily than homes or office buildings -- at 100 percent of its value, compared with 40 percent of full market value for land and buildings.
That's because equipment such as the cranes, transformers and lines that BGE owns is considered "personal property," explained Ronald W. Wineholt, director of the State Department of Assessments & Taxation.
All types of property are taxed at the same rate, $2.59 for each $100 of assessed value.
Among the real estate-heavy taxpayers on the top 20 list are apartment complex companies, such as Town & Country West Greenview Co. in Ellicott City, Sherwood Crossing apartments in Elkridge, ROC Vantage Association in Columbia's Town Center, Commons of Columbia in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village, and Golf Course View Partners in Columbia's Dorsey's Search village.
New England Life Pension pays five different tax bills on properties it owns, and Gateway 44 Partnership, a commercial properties company, also makes major tax payments on two properties.
One large company that just missed being included in the top 20 list is Coca-Cola. The company paid $245,181 in taxes in the last fiscal year on an undeveloped 122-acre parcel in Dorsey intended for a syrup plant and a regional headquarters. It so far has not decided whether it will build the facility. If it does, its subsequent tax bill could put it high on the list.
Despite the large sums paid by the county's top taxpayers, they amount to a mere 9 percent of the county's $6.6 billion tax base.
That's a good thing, Mr. Wacks said, because if they represented a much higher percentage, Howard County would be vulnerable to economic collapse if a few major companies folded or packed up and left. The largest instance of that involved the General Electric Co., which shut down its last Columbia manufacturing plant in 1990.
"I think what that indicates is that we've got a broad base of industries, and we're not a one-industry town," Mr. Wacks said. "When General Electric closed here a few years ago, it was a blow to the county, but because it was not a significant part of our tax base, it was not a killing blow."