Advocates For Property Tax Cap Say Citizens Fed Up, Ready To Act Foes Of Amendment Fear Loss Of Services

October 07, 1990|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

The debate over limiting county property tax revenue sounds depressingly familiar to Fair Haven resident John Batluck.

Batluck remembers when South County property owners rose up against tax increases in January 1982, during a severe recession. Nothing was done then, but he believes this might be the year citizens say enough is enough by passing a charter amendment Nov. 6 to limit annual growth in property tax revenues to 4.5 percent or lower, depending on the rate of inflation.

"If you put a frog in a glass of water and raise the temperature a degree at a time, he'll stay in until he's cooked," Batluck said eight years ago at the Arundel Center. "But if you jack it up right away, he'll jump. This may be our chance to do a little jumping."

Today, he thinks taxpayers have reached that boiling point.

Even in 1982, county officials seemed to understand then that something needed to be done. In fact, Batluck's councilwoman, Virginia Clagett, D-West River, said at the same meeting in the Arundel Center that perhaps the time had come to consider some form of property tax limitation in the county.

But as the weeks and months wore on, outgoing County Executive Robert Pascal negotiated union wage increases averaging 8 percent to 12 percent, the Board of Education reported that it needed $30 million for school repairs, and the council passed a resolution to spend $2.3 million to buy 341 acres of Mayo beachfront for a public park.

Eventually, talk of legislating limits on property taxes died down.

It was something of a surprise, then, when Pascal, who was running for governor, proposed cutting the property tax rate 15 cents to $2.31, and at the same time, boost spending 6.7 percent to $328 million.

Unfortunately, Pascal's last budget was too good to be true, and he left his successor, O. James Lighthizer, a $7 million operating deficit.

Lighthizer and the new council spent much of 1983 looking for ways to pare spending. Their first budget included a 38-cent tax increase and a freeze in salaries.

Since then, the county has enjoyed a remarkable run of fiscal stability -- due in roughly equal parts, to a thriving economy and a policy of planned budget surpluses.

This year, the council lowered the tax rate for the third time since 1984 -- it now stands at $2.46 per $100 of assessed value -- and passed a budget with a 7 percent increase in spending.

Opponents of the charter amendment say such budgets represent prudent management of taxpayers' money and that artificially limiting revenues will lead to erosion in county services and a loss of economic vitality.

"If growth is going to continue, then you either have to find some other sources of revenue or you have to make some choices," outgoing Councilwoman Carole B. Baker, D-Severna Park, said last week.

Baker helped found Fairness to All County Taxpayers, a group spreading the word that those choices would begin, as in 1983, with freezing salaries for teachers, police and firefighters, and end with cutting programs and laying off workers.

But Batluck is among the 68 percent of likely county voters who support the charter freeze, according to a recent poll by PEG Research in Annapolis.

Like many, he is convinced the county's $617 million operating budget has a level of fat that should be slowly rendered by limiting spending.

Otherwise, he said, homeowners will not be able to take control of their tax bills.

"They kind of expect politicians to shaft us to a certain degree," Batluck said, "and they simply take it and that's life."

However the people vote, the campaign by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government to limit taxes has sparked a close examination of the relationship between county citizens and their government.

It may not be just, but "the people are not sovereign," Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer argued as part of the county's case against the AATRG charter tax amendment this summer before Circuit Court in Annapolis.

In striking down the measure and a companion amendment giving voters legislative power through ballot initiative, the court bought his case that the separate county councils -- as creatures of the state -- have the sole authority to set taxes or pass laws.

But the state Court of Appeals ruled differently last month, acknowledging county citizens' right to limit their own taxes, upholding similar mechanisms in effect since the 1970s in Talbot and Prince George's counties.

AATRG president Robert Schaeffer acknowledges that Lighthizer put the county on sound financial footing when he took office. But he says the executive soon seemed to become more concerned with his role in history rather than serving as an elected representative.

Schaeffer, a Severna Park resident and retired naval commander, sneered last week at Lighthizer's push to build the $18-million Quiet Waters Park on Annapolis Neck, a centerpiece of the county's dual commitment to expanding recreation and removing fragile acreage from development.

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