Question D, A Fine Idea Poorly Executed, Should Die


October 28, 1990|By Chris Kaltenbach

There're two sides to every issue, right?

Absolutely. First there's the pro side, then there's the con side. And that holds true even when it comes to Question D on next Tuesday's ballot, the one designed to slap a 4.5-percent growth limit on property tax revenue.

Except in this case, there's a con side and a con side.

The con side is that an inflexible 4.5 percent cap could seriously damage county government's ability to provide the services its citizens require. And the con side is that no one is really certain just what this referendum will do if it passes; its drafters say one thing, while the county Office of Law suggests something entirely different.

Not that the idea of controlling taxes is without merit. On the contrary, the idea has considerable merit. Paying taxes hurts. Although the county's property tax rate has steadily decreased over the past seven years, rising assessments have more than kept pace. It's doubtful that anyone in Anne Arundel County is paying less in property taxes now than seven years ago -- or even one year ago.

That can be especially devastating for people with fixed incomes, whose revenue increases are tied to the rate of inflation, not the rate of taxation.

But to simply pluck a number out of the air and say, "Taxes can be raised this much and no more," is at best foolhardy, at worst dangerous.

Sure, controlling taxes sounds like a good idea, but so does improving police protection, protecting the environment, upgrading roads and bettering the education system.

All of that takes money -- money that a county government subject to a 4.5-percent tax cap may not be able to raise.

Of course, those facts may not mean much to a family whose children graduated school long ago, to the man or woman who has never been the victim of a crime, to the homeowner who doesn't have to live with the stench wafting off parts of Marley Creek.

But government needs to provide for all of its citizens. And in the end, everybody benefits when a school's class size is reduced, or an extra foot patrol is placed in North County or a parcel of waterfront property is preserved in Annapolis.

And that's only one reason the tax cap measure should be defeated. The other, and perhaps more pressing, reason is that no one can explain precisely what the proposal says.

Thanks to some vague wording about the state's "constant yield" formula and its effect on the cap, two vastly different interpretations of the measure have been put forth. Should Question D become law next week, its ultimate fate -- the question of whose interpretation is correct -- will probably be left up to the courts.

It would take a degree in law or economics (or both) to understand precisely what the measure could do. Suffice it to say that Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, the organization that drafted the original measure, insists it will cut property tax rates dramatically. But the county Office of Law says no, the cap will not apply to revenue generated by new development and thus will have a negligible impact on property tax rates.

Under the first scenario, the county could lose $118 million over five years. Under the second, the average property tax bill might be reduced $10 next year.

Do we really want a law on the books that nobody can pin down? Should we be passing a law one day, then not find out what it means until the next?

Even Robert Schaeffer, president of AATRG, doesn't seem to understand the measure as it now stands; initially he agreed with the Office of Law's interpretation, but within a few days had performed a 180-degree turn and was insisting that the measure would have a significant effect.

No homeowner would argue with the desirability of cutting back on property tax rates. Schaeffer and the AATRG should be applauded for galvanizing public sentiment on the issue and making the county's elected officials a little uncomfortable. Tax money could, and should, be spent more wisely. Particularly in uncertain economic times, people have the right to expect that their tax dollars will be used to greatest effect, and not wasted.

The message of the tax cap movement has been heard in Annapolis, and heaven help the politician who ignores it. Which is how a democracy is supposed to work anyway: If your elected officials aren't doing what you want, put in some who will. If you believe a county councilman or a governor or a congressman is frittering away your tax dollars, then work to get him or her out of office.

But a government is a dynamic, ever-changing organism that needs room to maneuver and adapt. A government cannot operate effectively with its hands tied, which is what Question D will do if it passes.

The tax cap represents a good idea badly executed. It should be defeated.

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