Tax caps teach 2 counties a lesson Limits imposed in P.G., Talbot

October 15, 1990|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

TC It took about three years for Marjorie Spirer to feel the effects of Prince George's County's cap on property taxes.

But when it hit, she could feel it where she taught, she said.

The veteran high school social studies teacher said that, by 1981, she was confronted with as many as 40 students in each class, a shortage of relevant textbooks and such a severe lack of paper that, at one point, she handed out paper towels for students to write on.

Meanwhile, 600 teachers -- 20 percent of the teaching staff at the time -- were laid off and the system's superintendent was in the awkward position of trying to convince the community that the schools were doing just fine, she said.

"During that entire period, we did bleed and our children suffered. And it was because the school system lost money," Spirer said.

For its critics such as Spirer, that tax-cap initiative in Prince George's County and another in Talbot County, both begun 12 years ago, provide bleak lessons for voters in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, who will decide on similar measures next month. On the other hand, supporters of the tax cap movement feel something is needed to rein in taxes and government spending.

Prince George's TRIM, which stood for Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, was a forerunner of the tax-revolt movement that swept the nation in the late 1970s. Modeled on California's legendary Proposition 13, it was one of the more radical of tax-revolt initiatives to affect a local jurisdiction. It limited the amount of property tax the county could collect to the $143.9 million it raised in 1979.

By 1984, Prince George's residents loosened the noose and approved a modification of TRIM that replaced the freeze on property tax collected with a freeze on the property tax rate at $2.40 per $100 of assessed value, thereby allowing the county's budget to grow, while holding down the assessable rate.

Residents of Talbot County on the Eastern Shore also passed a tax cap similar to TRIM in 1978 and have an opportunity next month to revise it. Critics there also blame the cap for strapping the county's ability to provide services. Two previous efforts to repeal the tax cap failed by wide margins, however.

This year's attempt, rather than total repeal, would allow the county budget to grow 3 percent a year.

Baltimore and Anne Arundel county officials who point to Prince George's experiences with TRIM do not draw the same comparisons with rural Talbot, citing different demographics. Talbot has a proportionally higher number of wealthy residents and senior citizens who use fewer government services.

Both referendums in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties would allow for growth in the revenues collected from property taxes, but would also cap that growth at specific levels.

Baltimore County's initiative, if approved by voters, would cap the yield at no more than a 2 percent increase annually. Anne Arundel's referendum calls for a cap at 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

At a meeting in Annapolis last Tuesday, attended by about 75 people, speakers said the Anne Arundel initiative would be devastating for the county's school system, as some say TRIM was for Prince George's.

But Frank P. Casula, vice chairman of the Prince George's County Council, said the Anne Arundel and Baltimore county amendments deserve a try.

Casula, who authored the revised TRIM amendment, said some sort of cap on spending is a good idea even though the Anne Arundel and Baltimore county initiatives appear to be less flexible than Prince George's.

Robert C. Schaeffer, leader of the tax revolt movement in Anne Arundel, said that had TRIM originally been set up as it was later modified, to allow some growth in revenues, the problems in Prince George's would not have been felt.

He also blamed corrupt politicians for that county's inability to deal with the effects of TRIM, pointing out that several current and former county elected officials are either in jail, facing incarceration or under investigation for land fraud.

"To have made [TRIM] work, you'd have to assume that your government is honest and will do the right thing," he said. "Obviously, neither is true in Prince George's."

Schaeffer added that the county does not have to limit itself to increases in the property tax to fund such departments as schools.

Still, property taxes remain the dominant source of revenues in Maryland jurisdictions, and any change would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Fred Homan, Baltimore County's budget director, said the county tax cap amendment is similar to the original TRIM because it will hold new revenues to an artificially low level despite growth in the county.

"P.G. County found out that, because of the freeze, they didn't have the latitude they needed," Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Carole Baker said. "Teachers were laid off, police response time went up 50 percent, 10 percent of the Fire Department calls went out understaffed and food programs for women and children had to be canceled three times."

Baker, not running for re-election, is involved in the movement to block a tax cap for Anne Arundel.

But some say something must be done to hold back government growth.

"What's happening now is that folks are not only fed up with taxes, but growth, too," Casula said. "What we're doing is taxing the individual property owner too much."

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