Baltimore County voters trying to decide between Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and challenger Roger B. Hayden may have trouble telling their public positions apart.
Many of those who vote may not even try. Even by Hayden's own measure, Tuesday's election will be a referendum on one overriding issue: The incumbent.
And public anger over property taxes and Rasmussen's style, mixed with displeasure toward incumbents, has allowed Hayden, Republican and former county school board president, to mount a campaign without saying exactly what he intends to do about taxes and spending if elected.
Both men oppose the charter amendment that also will be on the ballot. The amendment, if approved, would limit to 2 percent yearly increases in property tax revenues collected.
Both back a better school system, higher salaries for public workers, controls on growth and congestion, stronger environmental controls and protecting the county's agricultural land.
The argument is over whether Rasmussen furthered those goals in his first term and whether he's spent too much county money doing other things along the way.
Residents who were outraged over last year's sharply higher property tax assessments have joined with Republicans to charge that Rasmussen has not, in turn, cut the tax rate. It has risen 4 cents during his administration.
Citizens also are offended by county spending for the symbols of power. The renovation of executive and council offices, planting of a flower garden on the Towson courthouse lawn, a 16 percent pay raise due the executive in December and a county-owned Lincoln Town Car to transport him all have proven to be ready targets for criticism.
These critics have ignored Rasmussen's long-standing opposition to the property tax, which he claims is unfair because it is not based on the homeowner's ability to pay. Instead, critics have focused on his effort last year to win General Assembly approval of a higher county share of the state income tax.
Rasmussen sees that search for more county revenues as his major task in a second term. His opponent, meanwhile, campaigns for lower county spending and tax rates, but has offered few specifics.
To cut county spending, Hayden says, he would cut 200 non-civil service jobs and would appoint two committees to study county spending and waste in government, respectively. He said he would not have spent $25 million for a new combined fire and police department headquarters in the former Blue Cross-Blue Shield building, as Rasmussen did.
Hayden has put out three position papers on issues so far -- on education, agriculture and the environment.
Education is his specialty. The 45-year-old former steel company executive served seven years as county school board president. He said in his position paper that "teachers' salaries [and salaries of supporting personnel] must be increased substantially to retain personnel and to attract promising young teachers for a rapidly growing enrollment."
Hayden also said he wants to expand prekindergarten classes. And he calls for higher faculty salaries at community colleges.
Hayden has advocated higher pay raises for other county workers, too.
Rasmussen, meanwhile, was criticized for not paying county employees enough when he delayed a 4 percent pay raise for county workers until halfway through this fiscal year as a way to balance the budget.
When pressed, Hayden says that higher pay -- each 1 percent of salary increase costs the county $6 million -- can be achieved while cutting spending and taxes, but he doesn't say how. He said he would make such items priorities.
In his paper on agriculture, Hayden proposes that the county acquire a building where it can consolidate farm agencies. The building, he suggests, should be the hub of a Baltimore County agricultural center that would include an operating farm to demonstrate conservation techniques.
His environmental paper calls for a long-range master plan, using volunteer environmental experts to analyze waterfront problems. Also, he says that areas within exit ramps and highway rights-of-way should be filled with more plants to provide food for small wildlife. He wants to obtain and reforest unused business and industrial land and establish wildlife sanctuaries there. He // also advocates county investigation of fish farming as a new industry, and the appointment of a city-county committee to investigate air quality near the sometimes smelly Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Rasmussen, who created a county environmental protection department, got a boost last month when he was endorsed by a coalition of environmental activists. They credited the executive for his aggressive approach in protecting the county's waterways and shoreline, but criticized Hayden's years as an executive with Eastern Stainless Steel, a firm cited often by the state for ground and water pollution.
Rasmussen also claims that all the public criticism of his style, his car, his salary, his dress and office renovations are nonsense designed to deflect attention from the substance of his work and the county's need for more schools and teachers, more police and firefighters and better government facilities.
The tax-cap crowd, he says, is only fooling itself if it thinks that property taxes can be kept below inflation without hurting vital county services.