Disparities in rates, services split city, suburbs THE TAX GAP: A TALE OF TWO FAMILIES

November 18, 1990|By Suzanne Wooton

A gubernatorial commission is recommending landmark changes in Maryland's tax structure that would attack the growing disparity between the state's richest and poorest areas.

Today, The Sun looks at this disparity through the eyes of two families, foreshadowing some of the political difficulties inherent in resolving it.

What attracted them really wasn't that different. Both families wanted affordable homes with yards and trees and open space. The Selhorsts settled on a neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore just blocks from Herring Run Park, with its majestic expanse of trees, fields and streams. The Kendricks found a new rancher in Elkridge on a double, heavily wooded lot. Both decided to raise their families on one income, with wives working part time at nearby schools.

What those neighborhoods have cost them, though, is very different. The Selhorsts live in one of the state's poorest jurisdictions and the Kendricks in one of its wealthiest. It is a distinction that comes home every day in dollars and cents.

While the Kendricks spend less than 3 percent of their $50,000 gross income on property taxes, the Selhorsts shell out 5 percent of their $40,000. For their money, the Kendricks get nearby Rockburn Branch Park, with lighted ball fields and six tennis courts, concession stands and a tots playground. At Herring Run, the Selhorsts get uneven playing fields, not a single full basketball court, and a couple of tennis courts that sometimes have nets.

The Kendricks send their children to neighborhood Howard County schools. Even Elkridge Elementary, the oldest school in the county, has computers in every classroom, a teacher and an aide. Two of the Selhorst children attend citywide schools out of their neighborhoods; a third goes to a Catholic school around the corner -- for $2,000 a year.

In the official political jargon, all this is known as regional disparity. The disparity is getting worse as families like the Selhorsts leave the city, eroding its tax base, its potential to attract federal dollars, and its power to bargain for more money in Annapolis.

Significantly, the disparity between Baltimore and its surrounding counties is one of the worst in the country, according to a recent study of 30 metropolitan regions by the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

The revitalization of Baltimore has made it an economic and cultural hub that attracts many suburbanites; they work in its gleaming high-rise office buildings, they play at its Inner Harbor. But the city's infrastructure is deteriorating, thousands of its people live in poverty, and graduates of its schools can't do the work that suburban employers need.

"You can't have a doughnut with the middle falling apart and the ring growing. Everything is interconnected," said Mitchell Horowitz, economist for the Corporation for Enterprise Development in Washington, which helped prepare the regional council's study.

"But the disparities are no longer physical disparities. They're human disparities," said Mr. Horowitz. "It's clearly the pressing issue for the future."

To address those disparities, the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure has proposed sweeping changes in the tax system that would produce some $800 million in new revenue in the first year alone, much of it for the poorer rural counties and Baltimore City.

"It is necessary to ensure that the opportunities for a more uniform quality of life are available to each and every citizen," R. Robert Linowes, the Montgomery County lawyer who chairs the commission, said in a letter to the governor.

The long-awaited Linowes report, still facing a final vote by the commission, lays out a blueprint for a more equitable tax structure. But making it a reality will be left to the politicians. Amid a growing economic recession, lawmakers from even the wealthiest counties will recite their pressing problems: overcrowded schools, congested roads, overdevelopment and high taxes.

The message will be heard again and again.

"We just have all these problems in our own county that have become big problems," says Barb Kendrick.

'I want my Route 100'

Seventeen years ago, Barb and Larry Kendrick moved into their three-bedroom rancher tucked behind Interstate 95, which had just opened. At $38,900, the price was right for a house with central air, central vacuuming, wall-to-wall carpeting and a dishwasher.

The Kendricks grew up in the southwest Baltimore County community of Arbutus, with strong ties to Baltimore. They went to the Howard Street department stores on Saturday mornings, to Memorial Stadium for the Orioles games, to Gywnn Oaks amusement park in West Baltimore and to movies at the ornate Hippodrome downtown.

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