Bid to cut property tax faces trouble Opponents on council call rate proposal too costly for county; 'Frankly, it was imprudent'; Ecker defends plan to combine reduction with trash pickup fee


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed four-cent reduction in the county's property tax rate is in political trouble.

Two of five County Council members already have declared that they're opposed to the tax cut, announced last week as part of Mr. Ecker's plan to charge owners of single-family homes and townhouses a new fee of $125 a year for picking up their trash.

A third council member says he's leaning toward opposing the tax cut when the tax cut and trash fee proposals come separately before the council this spring. Even the tax cut's sole supporter says he might change his mind.

The two opponents -- Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, and Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat -- say the county can't afford to cut property taxes even with the new trash fee.

"We went to Annapolis on kneepads to grovel before the Public Works Board," the state agency that determines the amount of state school construction aid given to each county -- Ms. Lorsung said. "We were saying, 'Poor us,' and the next day, a story is in the paper saying we're considering a tax cut. You can only imagine what they thought. Frankly, it was imprudent."

Mr. Ecker says that the proposed four-cent tax cut -- when combined with the proposed $125 per house trash fee -- would yield a net gain in revenue for the county, adding $4 million to $5 million to Howard's coffers.

But the net impact for county businesses would be an estimated $800,000 in tax savings, as most already pay private companies to pick up their trash and would not be subject to the new trash fee.

The proposed household trash fee also would fall less heavily on homeowners with higher value properties, as they would benefit more from the proposed tax reduction.

For the owner of a house worth $204,828 -- the county's average sale price last year -- the $125 trash fee would be partially offset by a $32.77 tax cut under Mr. Ecker's plan.

But for the 83 county residents who own homes valued at $780,000 or more, the $125 trash fee would be offset almost entirely by savings from the proposed four-cent tax cut.

Council Chairman Darrel Drown -- the lone council supporter of Mr. Ecker's plan -- says this regressive effect doesn't bother him.

"I'll take all the $800,000 houses I can get," he said. "They're net payers of taxes unless they've got 20 kids in those homes. There's no way of covering your tax base and being fair and equitable to everyone."

Mr. Ecker agrees. He said combining a flat fee with a tax decrease is fairer than any other proposal to cross his desk.

He said he is putting together a program to have the county help lower-income homeowners by paying some or all of their trash removal fees.

A fourth council member is leaning toward opposing the plan. Democrat C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia called Mr. Ecker's twin proposal "somewhat illogical."

The fifth member, Dennis Schrader of Kings Contrivance, is taking a cautious approach, saying he will wait until after public hearings to decide how to vote on the tax cut proposal.

The plan's sole supporter, Mr. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, acknowledges that "there's a move afoot" within the council to scuttle the tax cut idea.

And Mr. Drown even said he'd join that movement if all of the roughly $2.8 million the county could save by not cutting taxes would be used to retire some of the county's debt.

That's exactly what Mr. Feaga, a fellow Republican, is counseling.

"I'm going to try to talk Chuck [Ecker] into not lowering the tax rate and use the money toward debt service," Mr. Feaga said. "I'm always concerned about next year. I don't want to get into a situation where the tax rate keeps bouncing up and down. It is better to keep it the same."

Mr. Ecker said he settled on a separate trash fee -- rather than include trash collection costs in setting the property tax rate as in the past -- in order to treat trash collection as a utility.

Eventually, he would like to have a curbside system that would weigh residents' trash and charge them accordingly. The technology exists for such a system, but he is not "comfortable" with it, Mr. Ecker said.

Instead, Mr. Ecker's plan would limit each household to four bags or containers of trash a week, one bag or container more than the current average county household's trash output.

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