A Bigger Tax Base Does Not A Happier County Make


October 06, 1991|By Mark Fleming

Can you say, "tax base"?

Careful, now.

These are magic words on the lips of bureaucrats, developers and businessmen who use them as if the door to all sorts of wonders wouldswing open majestically if only we had a greater tax base.

Need anew road or school?

Chant, "tax base."

Sewer plant overflowing?

Whisper it reverently: "tax base."

Ever see a small group of bright-eyed, sweating men huddled over a tiny pair of rolling white cubes, cursing excitedly and murmuring incantations like "come to papa" and "baby needs a new pair of shoes"?

If they all roll sevens, they would be winners. Everything would be wonderful.

What these people conveniently neglect to mention, though, is a simple truth: Magic words don't always open doors; budgets rarely, if ever, balance; and you, me, the commissioners, developers, farmers and businessmen don't want the same things.

Think of your own budget.

Your family gets a paycheck or two every week. You pay the rent, buy food and gas, Bart needs braces, Lisa needs new shoes and Marge wants to get her hair done.

You can afford all that. But, like everyone else, you also want your children to be able to go on to a good college.

Evenif you work overtime and Marge gets a part-time job, some other needalways will be just beyond your family's reach.

Here's how the magic of "tax base" turns gold into straw.

To increase the magic, you have to increase the tax base, the taxable dollar value of Carroll's homes, businesses and farms. That means more families, more homes, more strip malls and 7-Elevens, more fast-food joints, gas stations and so on.

And that brings more schools and libraries, more police and fire protection, more sewer and water facilities, more roads and bridges, and so on.

The more you get, the more you need. And what once was fertile farmland dotted with historic small towns becomes --presto! -- yet another sprawling suburb.

And when you get all those wonderful things, life is all enchantment and your property taxes never will rise. Right?

In fact, in the fiscal 1981-1991 decade, the tax base more than doubled, from $919.5 million to $2.1 billion, and the property tax rate increased from $2.12 to $2.35 per $100 of assessed value. Property skyrocketed in value, and residents paid higher taxes on property worth more.

Carroll's operating budget almost tripled, from $41.3 million in 1981 to $117.6 million in 1991. A decade earlier, the tax base had been only $320.5 million, and the countyspent less than $13.4 million.

Property tax receipts, which account for 28 percent to more than 40 percent of revenue for the county'stown governments, more than tripled in the 1980s. Spending for education, public safety, health and human services, public works and county staff increased dramatically to keep pace with growth.

But ask yourself this: Is my family better off now than it was 10 or 20 yearsago?

If the tax base grows more slowly, so will the amount governments can spend. Certainly, we will have to make tough choices.

Carroll's Office of Management and Budget says $225,000 is the break-even sales price where the taxes collected on a new home pay for all the services the county provides. Yet, in August, the average price of a new home in Carroll was $134,800.

Who is paying the freight? Youare. Businesses make up only about 15 percent of Carroll's tax base.

And now Commissioner Julia W. Gouge proposes to lower or eliminate impact fees -- which help pay for new roads, schools and other infrastructure -- to

make it easier for developers to build even more.

Rather, the commissioners should take to heart Donald Dell's campaign cry, "Keep It Country," and increase impact fees to slow development.

Each new home or business should be evaluated in terms of its impact on education, police and fire protection, water, sewage and traffic.

We should not compromise quality of life for the sake of increasing Carroll's tax base.

Increasing the tax base isn't a panacea; its effect has no magic. So, stop to consider next time someoneproposes to roll the dice, to annex more property, build new homes and businesses. Don't let others gamble with Carroll's future.

Put a stop to the crap game.

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