Baltimore County Council members said the small tax rate reduction they approved should be seen as the start of a larger trend to continue for the rest of their term.
The 3 cents that the county executive and council trimmed from the county's current property tax rate of $2.895 per $100 of assessed value "is not trivial, it's a significant step," said freshman Councilman William A. Howard, R-6th.
Under the $1.35 billion county budget that the council approved yesterday for fiscal year 1992, the average county property owner's taxes will still rise $24 even with the cut, due to rising property assessments.
Baltimore County was the only Baltimore metropolitan area jurisdiction to cut its tax rate in tough economic times. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties held their rates steady, while Howard raised its by 14 cents. All jurisdictions cut their spending save for the city, which is weighing a slightly larger budget for next year.
In Anne Arundel today, the County Council was expected to act on a proposed $616.6 million operating budget, slightly less than this year's. The council and County Executive Robert Neall have tentatively agreed to endorse a proposal to redistrict schools, shifting as many as 15,000 students, and saving about $50 million.
The school board has the final decision on whether or not to redistrict.
County Auditor Joseph Novotny also has recommended the council cut another $6.1 million from the budget, including $1.2 million in overtime Neall requested for firefighters.
In Towson yesterday, as if to emphasize its determination to make more than cosmetic cuts, the Baltimore County Council stated that it will seek more auditors to monitor government efficiency throughout the year and demand more time to examine any fee increases that County Executive Roger B. Hayden proposes.
The council felt its back was to the wall, for instance, when it approved a 2 percent increase in the cable television franchise fee by a bare 4-3 majority and then came back to re-vote 6-1 when it realized it needed the greater majority to make the fee increase take effect July 1. Revenue from the fee had already been built into the budget.
Councilmen Donald C. Mason, D-7th, Vincent J. Gardina, D-5th, and Howard originally voted against the $1.3 million increase, and Gardina maintained his dissent.
"A tax is a tax by any other name," he said, claiming that to cut pennies from the property tax rate and then raise a range of fees hurts the same people.
Mason expressed the common belief that the fee increase will be passed on to constituents. "Senior citizens in my district like to watch their television," he said.
Although several members protested, the council approved all but one of Hayden's proposed fee increases, which ranged from higher parking fines and golf course fees to new rezoning fees as high as $1,200 for landowners wishing to rezone their property. Gardina and Mason both voted against the new rezoning fees.
The council cut $1.56 million from the operating budget, including $600,000 from the storm emergency fund, which must be made up later in the year from a $10.8 million surplus.
Despite the rhetoric, the council's cuts were similar to those made in years past by other councils. The rest of the cuts were made by recalculating the costs of fuel, electricity and investment earnings, not be actually cutting any jobs or services.
In fact, the council message contained a plea similar to that issued over the last several years by the previous council, that the General Assembly in Annapolis empower the county to levy alternative taxes to help replace the unpopular property tax.
"In recessionary times like these, it is not difficult to be fiscally responsible," council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, said in reading the legislative body's budget message. The challenge, he said, will come in fiscal years 1994 and '95, when revenues may grow and the temptation to spend may be greater.
The council also approved by a 5-2 vote a four-year term for county Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly at a salary $5,000 lower than that authorized for the county executive. That means Kelly, who now is receiving $69,000 a year, will get an $11,000 a year raise June 1, another $4,900 increase in December, and $5,000 a year more each December after that.