Going from Government Critics to Government Officials in Baltimore County

November 03, 1991|By DENNIS O'BRIEN

Last fall, the tax protest movement was widely credited with helping to sweep into office the Baltimore County executive and five of seven new council members.

But it is now -- as the county grapples with a $26.8 million deficit and expects to be hit with additional state budget cuts -- that the movement's effects are hitting home.

Cities and states throughout the country struggling with similar budget deficits are considering solutions that include tax hikes and service cuts.

But in Baltimore County, neither the county council nor the county executive is talking about increasing taxes. It is here, after all, that the tax protest movement has been most evident.

This is the county that saw the election of Donald Mason, D-7, a retired Bethlehem Steel mechanical supervisor who for 10 years made a part-time career of advising property owners on appealing their tax assessments and writing to newspapers to call for reduced government costs.

This is the county where his ideological soul-mate, William Howard, IV, told a room crowded with people angry about property taxes that they should "jam the system" with property tax appeals if they are concerned about paying too much tax.

This is a county where tax protest meetings have attracted hundreds of people, where one tax protest group has its own newsletter and another spawned John O'Neill, a retired Ruxton business executive who is an economic advisor to Mr. Mason and serves on two of county executive Roger B. Hayden's advisory boards.

Mr. O'Neill, who is president of the Maryland Taxpayer's Association, spends two to three days a week lobbying in Annapolis for state tax cuts, testifying before House and Senate committees and writing letters to influential legislators.

"Some people thought that we were just going to go away, but we aren't. We're here to stay," he said.

He tells anyone who will listen that the government should reduce costs by cutting back on such expenses as state employee pension benefits, which he considers too generous. He also thinks the county should increase the work week to 40 hours for the 2,500 employees who work 35 hours a week and should consider increasing class size by one or two children per class.

L The candidates-turned-councilmen are not quite so outspoken.

They have found that while a candidate can verbally sting like a bee, a councilman should move like a butterfly -- fluttering from one issue to the next and treading lightly where ever he lands.

They have learned that cutting costs is not as easy as they thought. Many of the huge expenses that make up the county's $1.1 billion budget do in fact pay for necessary services.

Last spring, before school superintendent Robert Y. Dubel presented his budget -- which makes up half of the county's spending -- Mr. Mason had Mr. O'Neill brief the council on areas where education spending had skyrocketed. Mr. O'Neill pointed out the increase from $6.2 million to $9.2 milion for placements for special education students.

But an hour later, Dr. Dubel told the council how that budget item pays forplacements at special residential schools that can cost up to $110,000 per student and the county is required by federal law to provide such placements.The item was not cut.

Critics say that is the problem with the tax protesters: they lack detailed knowledge about the facts behind the costs, and their calls for cuts fall flat when one looks at specific targets.

Mr. Mason responds that 10 months in office is too little time to reverse spending patterns of the last decade. What's important is that a direction toward cuts has been established, he said.

"We've got people listening and thinking about the issue, and that's what is important," said Mr. Mason.

His one suggestion so far has already sparked a storm of protest: privatizing services now offered by the county government's 8,000-member work force. Mr. Mason has asked the county auditor to come up with a report on cost comparisons involved in having private companies handle traditional government services, such as road maintenance. The report is due out next spring, he said.

"It's a politically sensitive issue, I know that. I know there will be a lot of resistance," Mr. Mason said.

County labor unions would surely resist.

"It would eliminate jobs, and you would lose the expertise and experience of the people who are in those jobs," said Karen Jones, first vice president of the Baltimore County Classified Employees Association and a right-of-way acquisition agent in the Public Works Department.

Critics also say another problem is the system seems to co-opt councilman, making them reluctant to speak out.

Council members need the administration, for everything from pothole repairs in their district to funding for parks, and it can be difficult to criticize the man in charge of providing such services.

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