If County Executive Charles I. Ecker decides to raise property taxesa little bit, he might just as well raise them a lot because the effect on voters could be the same, pollster Brad Coker said Friday.
Coker said his opinion is "purely speculative" -- based on experienceover the years rather than a recent poll. Coker said he has not doneany polling in the county since he predicted Ecker's November victory.
"Sometimes, a 5-cent increase is as damaging as a 40-cent increase," Coker said. "So if (Ecker is) going to go to the well, he might as well get a full bucket of water."
Ecker has said repeatedly thatwhile he expects to combine a tax increase with drastic cuts in nextyear's budget, he hopes to keep the increase minimal. A 26-cent increase, he said, is "out of the question."
Ecker said his "sense" isthat county residents don't want a tax increase. And as a result, heis trying to keep one "as close to zero as possible."
He may sense things correctly.
"I've never seen an increase in taxes help getpeople out of a recession," said Chamber of Commerce president Richard H. Pettingill.
Scot Hoeksema, president of the Coalition of Community Associations, said that while he has "no good feeling about a tax increase," statistics he read in a national magazine recently show Maryland has the fifth-heaviest tax burden in the nation.
"A taxincrease would only make it worse," he said.
Former County Council member Angela Beltram said flatly that there should not be a tax increase at all.
She doesn't want to see layoffs either, saying Ecker should furlough employees instead.
Ecker has said he probably will have to lay off 200 employees and leave another 100 vacancies unfilled.
Those who advise Ecker to raise taxes enough to avoid cutting services and laying off employees argue that the county is wealthy enough to afford it.
A recent prospectus advertising the county's Feb. 20 bond sale said the county ranked ninth in per-capita income among "major affluent suburban counties" nationwide, and sixth nationwide interms of "effective buying income."
Sheila Ray, executive director of the Association of Community Services, says that while her organization has not taken a position on a tax increase, she hopes the county's wealthier citizens will increase their help to the poor.
"A quick recession and the war has led to an astounding increase inneedy people in the county," she said. Although she said she is "grateful" that Ecker is proposing a 4.6 percent increase in grants-in-aid for human services, Ray wonders if it will be enough to cope with "the changing face of the county."
The situation is so acute that in the first half of this year, Grassroots -- a local non-profit organization that offers shelter to the homeless -- had to turn away 500 people, including 210 county residents, Ray said.
Other county human service agencies are experiencing similar demands, she said.
Rayalso is concerned about a state proposal to make non-profit organizations pay sales taxes. "We're getting it coming and going," she said.
Whatever Ecker decides to do about increased expenditures and reduced revenues, "it has to be balanced," says Vivian Feen, president of the county Board of Realtors. "I've always been proud of the county. I don't want to see us lose that quality of life" that leads people to make their homes here.
Feen says it is especially important that budget cuts do nothing to alter the "fabulous demand" for children to enter the school system here.
In the final analysis, Ecker's intuition about tax increases may be just as good if not better than any poll.
When you ask if people would be willing to raise taxes to support schools, build new roads and provide police and fire protection, they most always say "yes," said Coker, the Columbia-based pollster. "But put a tax initiative on the ballot and they'll vote it down."
While Ecker "is not in an easy position politically, he'll be all right if things come around OK (economically) in the next couple of years," Coker said. "For his sake, he has to remind voters who caused this in the first place."
Ecker is already ahead of him. He unveiled his "My predecessor is to blame" speech two weeks ago at the Republicans' Lincoln Day dinner at Turf Valley.
Former Executive M.Elizabeth Bobo had a $19 million surplus with which to balance her first budget and she still raised taxes 22 cents that year, he said.
"What did she leave me as I prepare my first budget -- what did sheleave the county? A whopping deficit -- a shortfall in revenue that will probably hit $20 million."
Former council member Beltram, a Democrat, said the Ecker speech won't wash. "He'll try to blame it on Bobo and the Democrats, but all counties are in the same situation. We're not unique.
The problem is nationwide. If he wants to put theblame where it belongs, he should blame George Bush."