Executive is opposed to a tax cut Ruppersberger says aging county's needs are more important; Council chairman agrees; Most years since 1992, budget savings went into Balto. Co. coffers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As a slow-growth, aging suburb, Baltimore County needs new classrooms, repaved roads and rebuilt bridges more than TTC taxpayers need a token penny or two cut from their property tax rate, says County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

He's taking that message to the County Council, which is looking for a few million dollars to cut from the executive's $1.5 billion budget proposal for 1997-1998.

"We're not caught up. We're just getting out of a recession," Ruppersberger said.

If the council goes along, it will continue a trend begun in 1992 of plowing the council's budget cuts back into government services instead of returning the money to taxpayers' pockets.

Only in 1994 -- an election year -- did the council behave differently. It cut a penny from the tax rate, a move that then-Councilman Ruppersberger ridiculed as giving each taxpayer a rebate worth "two quarter-pounders with cheese."

Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, agrees with the executive's proposal for the budget.

"If you're down to 1 or 2 cents, [a tax cut] would be more symbolic than anything else," Bartenfelder said.

Each penny of the property tax rate -- $2.855 per $100 assessed value -- equals $1.7 million in revenues for the county.

Other council members haven't publicly given up on tax cuts yet. But all say they see the logic of Ruppersberger's arguments.

Louis L. DePazzo, who was one of county government's harshest critics before becoming a councilman in 1994, is downright jovial in supporting the executive.

"I'm like a puppy dog," he said, joking about his close relationship with Ruppersberger. "Somebody pets me on the head, and I'll wag my tail."

The council's tough budget decisions are a week or more away, though the potential for up to $3 million in cuts appears possible -- even if they're sometimes tantalizingly out of reach.

Monday, for example, school district budget director John Markowski cheerfully volunteered a hefty cut from health insurance savings. "We'd be glad to take a $2 million reduction," he told the council. But because such a large cut would breach a state law that governs school spending levels -- triggering a loss of millions in state aid -- the council isn't likely to take the offer.

Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, is one who hasn't ruled out a tax cut. But he said he would give up the idea in a flash for a $2 million model tutoring program in low-achieving county schools.

Ruppersberger lists several reasons for avoiding a token cut in the tax rate. With the state's structural budget deficit unresolved and county revenue growth still slow, lowering the county tax rate now could mean raising it later, he said. And the needs of the county's aging infrastructure are great, though more than $100 million has been earmarked for school projects next year.

"We're 40 years behind," Ruppersberger said.

Ruppersberger also said a token tax cut would anger state legislators who worked to get more state money for the county.

Bartenfelder, a former state legislator, and Democratic Sen. Michael J. Collins, chairman of the county's senate delegation, agreed.

Cutting the county tax rate would be a "very unfortunate decision," Collins said. Most state employees won't get a raise this year, but county workers will, he noted.

"The needs of an aging county are very great," Collins said, adding that he would be happy to enumerate those in his Essex district to the council.

Pub Date: 5/07/97

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