A proposal to limit property tax revenue in Baltimore County drew fire yesterday on two fronts -- with a coalition of community leaders launching a campaign against it and the county executive warning department heads to prepare for lean budgets.
County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen told his department heads in an unusual, hourlong meeting yesterday to plan for cutting 7 percent from their budgets next year because of the proposed 2 percent cap on the increase in property tax revenue. He said the cap would translate into a $20 million loss of revenue.
When the county's increasing fixed costs -- such as employee health care, retirement payments and debt service -- are taken into consideration, the government faces real cuts of $41 million, said Fred Homan, the budget director. Public schools would lose $19 million; the police department $4.9 million; the fire department $3.5 million; community colleges $1.7 million; and the library system $1 million.
"With or without the 2 percent referendum, the county is looking at tight fiscal years," Mr. Rasmussen said. "Layoffs should be considered only as a last resort."
John O'Neill Sr., a leader of Citizens for Representative Government, the group that put the tax cap on the ballot, disputed Mr. Rasmussen's figures and estimated a loss to the county of only $11 million, not $20 million.
He said Mr. Rasmussen had known for a year that he faced built-in costs and should have been preparing for them.
A few hours after Mr. Rasmussen's session, former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson stepped up to a podium at an Essex firehouse to announce the formation of a coalition of business, labor and education leaders to fight the tax cap.
A recent poll commissioned by The Sun showed that 59 percent of county voters supported the tax cap, while 32 percent opposed it. The proposal is similar to tax caps on the ballots in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.
Mr. Hutchinson told members of the coalition that they must use their networks of members and supporters to raise money and campaign against the revenue cap, labeled "Question T" on the ballot.
"There is no issue that will have a greater impact on this county than Question T," said Mr. Hutchinson.
The group includes presidents of the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and unions representing teachers, firefighters, police and blue-collar workers. It is called Baltimore County CARES, or Citizens Against Reduction in Essential Services.
Its campaign will include a series of television and radio commercials as well as a telephone blitz to voters, Mr. Hutchinson said.
He said the cap, coupled with the impending recession and a continuing loss of federal funds, would mean larger class sizes in county schools, cuts in fire and police services and shorter hours for libraries, senior centers and recreation facilities.
"What it'll mean," countered Mr. O'Neill, "is a closer look at government operations in terms of productivity and efficiency."