Tax Masquerade in Towson

May 31, 1991

Taxpayers don't have much to cheer about in the budget the Baltimore County Council approved yesterday. Though the property tax rate was cut by 3 cents, the average homeowner's bill will still rise by $24. And that is not all. The new $1.35 billion budget also increases sewer and water charges. It raises parking fines. And it hikes the fee on the county's cable television operator, who is likely to pass this tax onto consumers in a hurry.

The reality of modern-day government is that costs seldom go down, even though some big-ticket items may sometimes appear less costly.

For that reason, previous county executives from Spiro T. Agnew to Dennis F. Rasmussen have begged legislators in Annapolis to give them flexibility in revenue sources so that property taxes could be drastically lowered. Mr. Agnew's effort got nowhere but he ended up winning higher offices anyway. Mr. Rasmussen was not as lucky. For all his troubles, he was soundly beaten in his re-election bid -- after having been tarred, unfairly, with a "Taxmussen" label.

In electing Republican Roger Hayden as county executive and throwing out most of the council incumbents, Baltimore County voters seemed to say they wanted the cost of government cut. Through their first budget, the executive and the new council have delivered. Working under the constraints of a recession economy, they have hammered out a budget that projects leanness but avoids making anyone excessively angry. Take county employees, for example. They will not get an outright wage hike, but many will benefit from step and seniority increases.

With the coming fiscal year's budget approved, attention shifts to creating enough revenue to finance the demands of the fiscal year that begins in July 1992. And once again, politicians are reviving some of the old Agnew and Rasmussen proposals to reduce reliance on the property tax.

There is talk on the council of an extra charge for garbage. Meanwhile, a committee formed by Mr. Hayden is soon to propose higher income taxes and steeper user fees so the property tax can be cut, even though government costs keep rising.

Yet while revenue sources and payment burdens may shift, the taxpayers' overall obligations will not decrease. Expecting anything else in Baltimore County, an increasingly urbanized jurisdiction with pent-up demands, would be foolhardy.

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