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With county tax cap, who can afford nice?


NICE. Meet County Executive Janet S. Owens, and the word will surely come to mind.

Too nice, you might think, to go through bitter contract negotiations that are best left to fighters who enjoy trench warfare. Too nice to tell police officers, fire fighters and other important county employees, "That's my final offer." And mean it.

Ms. Owens is gentle, affable and compassionate. Those qualities have served her well during a banner first year in office. But taxpayers more concerned with cutting expenses than paying employees top dollar wouldn't want to send a Mother Teresa type to bargain against tough union negotiators, who are doing their job for members.

Ms. Owens was sympathetic to complaints that police officers in neighboring jurisdictions bring home heftier paychecks. She agreed to a 17 percent pay raise over three years for police officers: You can almost imagine the compassionate county executive placing a delicate hand on a distraught union negotiator's shoulder and saying, "Don't worry. I won't let you suffer any longer."

I appreciate her compassion -- and I would appreciate it more if I belonged to a union that bargains with the county.

Yes, she must do the best she can to compensate workers fairly and equitably. Yes, she must try to recruit and retain the best firefighters, police officers, teachers and other county employees she can get.

And yes, caring for the well-being of county employees is an admirable quality.

But Ms. Owens is running a large government, not a soup kitchen. Her compassion must be measured. She has a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers to keep her budget in the black.

County residents made a decision -- a questionable decision, in retrospect -- to sharply limit the amount of property taxes their local government can collect. In 1992, they approved a ballot measure to limit property tax increases to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. A concerned group of citizens has launched a petition drive to modify the property tax cap. The group seeks to place a measure on the November ballot to limit property tax increases to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater.

The one-word change would give the county the flexibility it needs to pay its public servants fairly, repair crumbling school buildings and maintain its roads.

For now, however, the tax cap remains bolted in place, and Ms. Owens cannot throw money at employees.

Anne Arundel County, like the state and federal governments, has benefited mightily from the bullish stock markets. Investment returns have generated plenty of capital gains tax to the local coffers in recent years. But last week's volatility on Wall Street brings a sobering reminder that these large returns and the tax revenue they provide are not guaranteed in future budgets.

So Ms. Owens must go out of her genteel character and become a tough negotiator.

Police officers are underpaid, compared to their peers. But Ms. Owens gave them a pay raise she can't afford. That was an unwise decision. Every other union is using the police salary increase as a benchmark.

Firefighters rejected a 13 percent raise over three years. That would have been a significant increase. But they aren't happy with it. In fact, they're downright angry. Firefighters used some of the same arguments their law enforcement counterparts brought to the bargaining table. A key argument was that they are underpaid compared with their counterparts in the region (which strangely is the argument every police and firefighter union in the region uses).

And firefighters complained to Ms. Owens, "It's only fair; you gave police officers more."

The executive's generosity has come back to haunt her. She also is hearing shouts of unfairness from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The AFSCME president says her members were offended that their offers pale in comparison to those made to public safety employees. It's easy for police and firefighters to appeal to the public. They protect us. Let a county clerk try a public appeal: "I deserve a raise. I mail your tax bill to you on time."

Good luck with that one.

Ms. Owens may find herself running out of compassion by the time all these negotiations are done. The tight tax cap prevents her from being the Anne Arundel County employee's sweetheart.

The honeymoon is over.

Ms. Owens had a banner first year in office. She followed through on her promise to make education a priority. She has repaired the fractured relationships between the county executive's office and other public offices. And she has gained Gov. Parris N. Glendening as a friend and ally.

She had a few problems -- some questionable deals in the county's economic development corporation, which preceded her; some squabbles with County Council members over waivers to developers; and trouble filling key positions.

The road gets tougher. As the tax cap belt tightens around the waist of her government, she'll have to be firm when necessary and learn to say no.

Even if she says it sweetly.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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