Officials wary of tax cap dynamite Losses of service feared

September 24, 1990|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff Marina Sarris contributed to this story.

Having witnessed the defeats of several incumbents in the recent primary election, several of Baltimore County's leading officials are taking neutral stances on the proposed tax cap that will appear on the November ballot.

In Anne Arundel County, meanwhile, Robert R. Neall, the Republican candidate for county executive, said he opposes the proposed 4.5 percent annual tax-revenue limit there, although he acknowledged that it has an excellent chance of passage. Democratic candidate Theodore J. Sophocleus, a member of the County Council for the past eight years, said today he has not taken a position on the tax cap amendment.

"The 4.5 percent limit is certainly restrictive, but I believe the people have to make the decision," Sophocleus said.

He said he would be formulating a stance once he determines the impact the 4.5 percent cap would have on the budget.

The Maryland Court of Appeals Thursday approved the placement on the Nov. 6 general election ballot of tax cap referendums in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Although the court disallowed portions of the referendum questions that would have rolled back taxes to levels of a few years ago, it upheld the voters' right to restrict the amount of tax a county council can levy.

Despite the court's softening of the tax-cap proposals, the grass-roots tax rebel groups that began organizing the referendum drive last spring were elated by the decision. Incumbents who have argued that the cap would cause massive layoffs and cutbacks in public services now must weigh how loudly to continue to fight the tax-cap movement, especially in the wake of a primary two weeks ago noted for the voters' appetite to remove officeholders.

Anne Arundel's referendum calls for property-tax increases of no more than 4.5 percent, or the rate of inflation, whichever is larger.

The more restrictive Baltimore County issue would allow revenues from property taxes to rise no more than 2 percent a year, based on receipts from the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

That means that new development in Baltimore County will help reduce the tax rate further, instead of putting new money into county coffers. County officials, from Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen on down, predict a severe cumulative effect if the voters approve the charter amendment.

Baltimore County expects to collect about $369 million in property taxes this fiscal year, about $26 million more than last year. Under the 2 percent cap, that revenue increase could not exceed $7.4 million more in the year starting July 1, 1991.

County Budget Director Fred Homan said the county will collect about $20 million less than expected in operating budget revenues next year if the cap passes. He said the county will have to cut down on its capital budget spending too, based on the lower income projections.

Together with the effects of a possible recession and sharply higher energy prices, the loss could force cuts in county government next year.

Despite that, Rasmussen and Councilmen Ronald B. Hickernell, D-1st, and William R. Evans, D-6th, all are taking a neutral public position on the controversial issue, saying only that they must "educate" the public on the costs of the cap.

Republican county executive candidate Roger B. Hayden, a former county school board president, said he opposes the 2 percent property-tax cap although he's glad that people will have an opportunity to vote on it.

"We have to be able to manage," Hayden said, adding that 2 percent was too restrictive a limit for a county executive to work ++ with. He said that if elected he would appoint a commission on taxes that would include leaders of the petition drive to advise him on ways to cut spending.

County Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd; Vincent Gardina, who upset Councilman Norman Lauenstein, D-5th, for the Democratic nomination for council in Perry Hall-White Marsh; and incumbent Councilman Mel Mintz, D-2nd, all said they oppose the 2 percent cap.

Ruppersberger said he thinks a 4 percent cap on assessments the County Council passed last spring provides an adequate limit on property-tax increases. Henry C. Merchant, Ruppersberger's Republican opponent in the November election, said today he would vote for the 2 percent cap, albeit reluctantly.

Councilwoman Barbara F. Bachur, D-4th, said she opposed the original petition drive, but has yet to examine the court-approved version.

Meanwhile, Donald Mason, who defeated incumbent Dale T. Volz to become the Democratic nominee for council in Dundalk's 7th vTC District, is an enthusiastic supporter of the tax rebellion and the 2 percent limit. So are Lawrence Williams, his Republican opponent, and Douglas Riley, Bachur's rival for re-election.

Mintz's Republican opponent, George W. Murphy, agrees with Mintz and opposes the referendum issue. Birchey Lee Manley, Hickernell's opponent, said she probably will support it.

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