Bungle in Arundel

October 19, 1990

The citizens of Anne Arundel County are finally awakening to reality. The tax-cap referendum, misguided from the start, may now be nothing more than lip service to their frustration.

Arundel voters have the state's highest court to thank. The Court of Appeals, ruling on the constitutionality of a referendum to limit property taxes, picked the provisions it would allow the voters to pass judgment on -- essentially, rewriting the referendum to its liking. This foray into judicial activism stripped the referendum of its core -- a provision that would have rolled back property tax revenues to their 1988-89 level, cutting almost $30 million out of next year's county budget.

That left the county with a proposal that simply limits annual growth in property tax revenues to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation -- whichever is lower. The cap could still make a big enough dent in county revenues to satisfy even the most vociferous tax rebels. But it probably won't.

The court retained language from the original referendum which, according to the county attorney, could exempt new development from the cap. That would mean the average homeowner would get a paltry break of only about $10 a year. The problem is, it's not certain that new development would, in fact, be exempted. But if it isn't, county government won't be able to collect enough revenue from new construction to pay for the schools, police, fire and sewer that new development demands.

It will take council's passing a new budget, and a court challenge, to know for sure what the tax cap really means. So it comes down to this: Arundel citizens now must vote on a referendum which, if it applies to new development, will mean slow strangulation for county government -- or, if doesn't, as the county attorney contends, will offer only negligible tax relief. Either way, Anne Arundel voters need to show some common sense and vote against this bungled proposition.

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