Interest high, but campaigning low-key on tax caps

October 21, 1990|By Dennis O'Brien and Joel McCord

The battles over tax caps in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are being fought more across backyard fences than television airwaves, more in neighborhood taverns than in door-to-door campaigning.

While opponents of the caps do plan some television and radio ads, supporters and opponents say the scarcity of money, limited time before the election and the complex issues involved have meant mostly low-keyed campaigning in both counties.

"You can't beat people over the head with this issue. It's more a matter of convincing them by talking to them one-on-one," said Mim-mi Cholewczynski, president of the Sixth District Democratic Club in Dundalk and a proponent of Baltimore County's tax cap.

In Anne Arundel, the fight is over a ballot question that asks voters whether increases in property tax revenues should be limited to 4.5 percent, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

Baltimore County's more restric tive measure asks voters whether the county should be limited to property tax revenue increases of 2 percent a year.

Both supporters and opponents have regiments of foot soldiers out ineach county, spreading the word that the caps will either curb unwanted government spending or cripple efforts to provide services, depending upon your point of view.

Melvin Jones, a 73-year-old retiree from Bethlehem Steel Corp., tells his classmates in poetry and environmental studies courses at Essex Community College they are paying too much in property taxes and that voting for the cap would force the county to trim its middle management ranks.

"All your banks and all your stockbrokers are cutting out middle management people right now," he argues. "Maybe the county should be doing the same thing."

Meanwhile, Lou Bellinger, a retired machinist, preaches about the perils of Anne Arundel County's proposal to anyone who will listen on the street or down at American Legion Post 270 in Pasadena, where he used to be the commander.

"We need a lot of improvements, and I'm afraid the county won't have the money to do it if this thing passes," said Mr. Bellinger, who worries about money to dredge Marley Creek, pay schoolteachers and build roads and schools.

Late last week, however, Anne Arundel officials said a new interpretation of the tax cap proposal there suggested it might result in only minor reductions in revenues because it appeared to exempt money generated by new construction.

In both counties, proponents of the tax caps tend to be political outsiders who have grown suspicious and become alienated by those who run local governments.

In Anne Arundel, organizers in the taxpayers' movement often are retired professionals who live in homes where assessments have increased sharply in recent years.

Edwin A. "Ned" Schuman III, a retired Navy captain who lives in a house on Weems Creek in West Annapolis, said he had a "loathing for most politicians" and the taxes they levied. He saw the Arundel property tax revolt as "something we could do something about."

Local governments have "gotten careless, and the only way to make them be more careful is to limit the money they have," argued Ted Tussing, a retired vice president of a packaging company who has been organizing a letters-to-the-editor campaign in Anne Arundel County.

In Baltimore County, there are a patchwork of taxpayer groups, with members from affluent northern Baltimore County neighborhoods that were reassessed this year and from blue-collar communities in Dundalk.

"The question is, how fair is the present system with respect to property taxes paying for almost half of the services," said Joseph Ingolia of Lutherville, president of Citizens for Representative Government, the group that put the cap on the Baltimore County ballot. "We're saying that's too much of the share."

Opponents of the tax caps concede inefficiencies exist in local governments. But they argue that forcing drastic trims could cripple the effectiveness of essential services, including fire and police protection.

Mr. Bellinger has lived in the same small house on Fort Smallwood Road since 1953 and has seen his annual property tax bill go from $63 to $700.

He agrees that's a pretty sharp increase but doesn't think it's out of line or that the elderly are being taxed out of their homes.

"There might be a little waste in there, but very little," said MrBellinger, who has spent the past several years keeping a close eye on the county budget as a civic activist.

Many of those arguing against the caps often have a stake in maintaining government services.

Dolores Bail, executive director of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, worries that the county grant that helps finance the operation of a shelter for battered spouses would dry if the tax cap passed.

"We know from other places around the country where this kind of thing has happened that human services are the first thing to go," said Ms. Bail, who has been organizing leaders' of community service groups in Arundel to fight the tax cap.

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