Taxing Times in the Counties

August 03, 1991

Anne Arundel County began this week to look anew at ways of generating money to pay for local government. County Executive Robert R. Neall asked Sen. John A. Cade, R-Severna Park, a guiding force in shaping the state budget and Arundel budgets as far back as the mid-1960s, to take on this ambitious project as head of a 15-member committee. The group is to report by December, in time for the next county budgeting cycle.

In Baltimore County, a committee given roughly the same charge this spring is due to report its findings to County Executive Roger B. Hayden later this month. Another Baltimore County panel is reviewing the program expense and "efficiency" side of the ledger, as well.

If you're looking for sweeping changes, don't hold your breath -- in either county.

Both committees evolved from feisty tax-revolt movements in last year's county elections. Thus, some tax-protester showboating, such as the counter-productive chatter that dampened Monday's opening session in the Arundel Center, can be expected. Also, this thankless work is occurring in parochial solitude; so far, neither county's committee has talked with the other. Public expectations vs. the realities of paying for government services are out of sync just about everywhere.

Keep an eye on this work. Local governments are feeling as much budgetary pressure as state government. Pressure can foster creativity. The two county-based task-force reviews are welcome developments. In recent years, tax reform measures have originated at the state level. Even now, three General Assembly committees are ploughing much the same turf as these two county groups.

Senator Cade expects his panel to explore what local governments outside of Maryland are doing, hoping to find fresh insight. Baltimore County's group is focusing on eliminating or .. modifying the property tax, shifting to more reliance on the income tax for local government, says Larry M. Epstein, chairman of the county tax review and the 1990 Republican nominee for state comptroller. But these ideas mirror earlier taxation proposals, especially in Baltimore County. Mr. Epstein, an Owings Mills accountant, acknowledges such changes could succeed only with General Assembly and state government cooperation, which might be difficult to obtain.

The important point is that taxation and government spending ++ reforms, certainly among these tough times' toughest issues, are now finally receiving special attention from state and local governments. It is well worth the effort. As Senator Cade put it: "I don't know if there's anything new, but there can always be surprises."

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