County tax cap isn't the cure- all it pretends to be Forum Extra

Kenneth H. Masters

October 18, 1990|By Kenneth H. Masters

ON THE SURFACE, the property tax cap in Baltimore County has lots of appeal. What could be nicer than holding down the property tax rate?

But it's not that simple.

The many services we have come to expect from Baltimore County government come to us at a cost. That cost is paid for in large part by the revenues raised from property taxpayers like you and me. And, with inflation, the cost of providing the same level of service increases each year. If property tax revenues are limited to below the level of inflation, one of three things must inevitably occur:

NB 1. Services will be reduced to reflect the reduced revenue; or

Kenneth H. Masters

2. Other taxes will have to be raised to offset the loss of revenue current levels of service are to be maintained; or

3. There will be some combination of 1 and 2.

But some ask, "Isn't there fat that can be cut in the county budget?" The simple and honest answer is yes, of course there is. But there simply isn't enough fat to avoid real and significant cuts in services if the 2 percent cap is approved. Moreover, cutting fat is a one-time exercise, while the cap locks revenues below the rate of inflation year after year after year.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this proposal does not merely cap the increase in tax assessments; it also caps county revenue.

I cannot predict with any degree of precision where the cuts will come nor how severe they will have to be. Frankly, I don't think anybody on either side of this issue can make accurate projections. However, one thing seems fairly certain, and that is that the education budget will take a substantial hit simply because education is such a major piece of the county budget. Further, state school aid formulas are keyed to local "maintenance of fiscal effort," so a reduction in education spending may trigger reductions in state aid for Baltimore County.

My younger daughter is a senior at Catonsville High School. She would be out of the school system before the ax fell if Question T is approved. Many other voters may be in a similar position; cuts in education will not directly affect them.

But we shouldn't take comfort in that. A decline in the quality of education has profound consequences. Businesses seeking to relocate or to expand consider many factors in selecting a geographic area. One of the most important is the quality of the schools. A high-quality school system is an economic development tool of major significance.

Conversely, poor schools lead to economic stagnation or worse. So I think all of us need to ask ourselves if this is a price we are willing to pay for a rigid, inflexible property tax cap.

If we don't approve the 2 percent cap, is there any hope of otherwise controlling ever-increasing property taxes? I believe there is an alternative which at least should be given a chance. The alternative is the "spending affordability" mechanism recently established by the County Council. This approach is patterned after the generally effective plan adopted some years ago by the General Assembly to control the growth of the state budget. While certainly not a perfect solution, it represents a middle ground which restrains spending on the one hand while providing some flexibility on the other.

I suggest each of us think carefully of the implications if Question T gains approval. As a wise professor of mine taught me, there is no such thing as a free lunch.


Kenneth H. Masters represents Baltimore County's 12th District in the House of Delegates.

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