If there’s anyplace where raising taxes is a popular issue on the campaign trail, it’s surely not Anne Arundel County, the epicenter of Maryland’s local tax revolt 25 years ago. In 1994, voters amended Arundel’s charter to cap property taxes more strictly than nearly any other jurisdiction in the state, and even that hasn’t been enough; county executives and councils have cut rates four times since then on top of what the cap requires. Arundel has held its piggyback income tax rate down, too. At 2.5 percent, it’s the third-lowest of any county in the state.
It’s no surprise, then, that County Executive Steuart Pittman didn’t run on a promise to raise taxes. But he did run on a promise to address the real needs he saw in the county’s schools, fire and police departments and infrastructure, saying he would keep his options open in terms of how to address them. The message was similar to the one his fellow Democrat, John A. Olszewski Jr., gave when running for Baltimore County executive, and just like Mr. Olszewski, he has found that the vision he outlined on the campaign trail, and which voters supported, is impossible to achieve without new revenues.
Mr. Pittman is proposing to raise the piggyback income tax to 2.81 percent — still lower than any other big county in the state — and to increase the property tax rate from 90.2 cents per $100 in assessed value to 93.5 cents.
And what would they get for that money? All of the revenue from the property tax would go to the school system. (Under the terms of a 2012 state law, that’s the only way a county can override its property tax cap.) The $26.6 million that increase would generate would go toward reducing class sizes and increasing teacher pay. Some of the money raised by the income tax would also find its way to the schools to fund other priorities such as additional social supports for students (an increase in the number of school psychologists, counselors and the like) and more special education instructors.
Mr. Pittman’s budget also includes money for more police officers and fire fighters, the latter of which has become a critical need. Lastly, it would allow the county to finally take advantage of a charter provision that has been unused for decades to establish an infrastructure fund that would help alleviate congestion through investments in roads and transit.
We suspect few residents would disagree with those priorities. It’s just a question of whether they’re willing to see their taxes go up to pay for them. We understand that. But we would ask Arundel residents to consider the context. For a family making $100,000 a year with a $400,000 home (fairly typical in Anne Arundel County), Mr. Pittman’s proposal amounts to an extra $1.53 per day in taxes. A family earning $60,000 and living in a $250,000 home would be out 92 cents per day.
Mr. Pittman’s proposal has gotten a mixed reaction. Teachers, in particular, have been vocal in their support, arguing that class sizes have grown too large and salaries too low in comparison to neighboring jurisdictions, making it impossible to attract and retain quality educators. County Councilman Neil Volke, a Pasadena Republican, has been outspoken in opposition, arguing that Mr. Pittman is taking Anne Arundel down a path to being like Howard and Montgomery counties in terms of taxes. That’s a bit of a reach. The county’s tax rates would still be among the lowest in the state. And the property tax increase is hardly radical. The amount Mr. Pittman is proposing is equivalent to the voluntary cuts the county has made over the years, so it would effectively return the rate to what it would have been if county leaders had simply followed the dictates of the tax cap all along.
We expect and encourage the council to take a hard look at the spending in Mr. Pittman’s proposal and to make cuts where it’s appropriate, but we don’t expect they’ll find a lot of fat to trim. A quarter-century revenue diet has made the county government pretty bare-bones to begin with.
But when they are considering whether it is worth it to raise taxes to make investments residents want, particularly in the schools, we ask council members to look at the alternative playing out in Harford County. There, County Executive Barry Glassman,a Republican, is not seeking new revenues, and consequently, the budget he proposed would result in a loss of 100 or more teachers.
Arundel could continue to live within the revenue generated by its current income and property tax rates, but at some point, the cost of low taxes simply becomes too high.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.