Strange Bedfellows in Howard

January 29, 1991

The recession gripping the region is spawning strange bedfellows. Consider the massive coalition of government employees pushing for higher taxes in Howard County to head off pay cuts and layoffs.

The Coalition of Public Employees of Howard County, a newly formed group representing 3,700 teachers, police officers and other public workers from seven union locals, is analyzing several "options" including a property tax hike, development fees or a local tax on telephone calls. "We believe the people of this county are willing to work with their elected officials to preserve the quality of life they have come to expect," said coalition spokesman James Swab. "We don't believe the community will stand by and watch the decline in services and decline in morale."

This is a debatable conclusion given the "no new taxes" sentiment that surged through Howard and other jurisdictions in the last election. Moreover, convincing people that paring the public payroll will hurt their quality of life is not an easy job. Still, the movement in Howard and similar stirrings elsewhere is a sign that the reality of hard times is beginning to hit home.

The group's work is exploratory. Many ideas being discussed can't be activated without the blessing of legislators who have so far eschewed attempts to raise taxes. But the union group could prove a powerful political tool in sharpening a debate that has divided local and state legislators.

In Howard, for example, County Executive Charles I. Ecker has hinted broadly at the possibility of a property tax increase, a move opposed by Council Chairman Vernon C. Gray. Howard's state lawmakers, meanwhile, recently torpedoed a proposal to tax hotel and motel stays.

By throwing its weight behind more taxes, however, the Howard group is climbing a potentially slippery slope. It has irrevocably bound itself to the administration's argument that tax hikes or job reductions are the only two games in town. Should efforts to raise taxes fail, the county employees then may have little choice but to accept the other option before them -- like it or not.

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