John O'Neill resists new taxes with determined calm

January 05, 1992|By Eric Siegel

John O'Neill would seem to be an unlikely candidate to be spearheading a political movement. Surely, at the age of 76, with a face as kindly as it is craggy and a couple of recent operations behind him, he must be too old and weak. Certainly, with his tweed sport coat, soft voice and mild manner, he is too genteel.

But as he stands before a meeting of the Northern Baltimore County Republican & Civic Organization on a recent winter weekday evening, the president of the fledgling anti-tax-increase Maryland Taxpayers Association appears neither frail nor faint-hearted. And though he is hardly a firebrand on the stump, he makes it clear to the 75 or so people who have gathered at an American Legion Hall in Parkton that he is more than willing to enter the fray.

He charges matter-of-factly that Gov. William Donald Schaefer is "scar- ing the daylights out of everyone" over budget cuts when there's plenty of governmental fat left to trim. He contends quietly that public employee pension costs are out of control but says the politicians "are afraid of the unions; no one will talk about the issue but me."

And though he acknowledges that those who favor more taxes '' rather than more cutbacks outnumbered those opposing higher taxes at recent hearings around the state, he promises his group plans to "file a 4-foot-high stack of petitions" opposing higher taxes with the General Assembly by the end of January.

At the end of his brief talk, the conservative civic group presents him with its citizen recognition award for "distinguished and selfless service."

"His ideas are valuable to us all," Harold Lloyd, head of the Northern Baltimore County group, says later. "If it weren't for people like him, elected officials would be much less cautious with our money."

Not everyone lauds John O'Neill's positions so freely. Mr. Schaefer, for one, denounced him as a "rabble-rouser" when he encountered him during an anti-tax rally at the State House last fall.

"Any time you're involved in a fiscal problem, it's not terribly productive to stake out an absolute hard-line position," asserts Marvin Bond, spokesman for the state comptroller's office. "If you've got a powerful lobby trying to tie the hands of the [governor and the legislature], it's not a good sign."

Bill Bolander, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, decries some of his ideas about public employees as "very narrow-minded" and "complete nonsense." As for his "no new taxes" stance, Mr. Bolander, whose group is one of several groups who plan a massive rally in Annapolis on opening day of says "the tide is turning" in favor of a tax increase.

And Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, concedes Mr. O'Neill's "homework done very well" but says of his organization, "Sometimes you think they want to go back to the days of pumping water" in terms of government services. "They really don't represent as large a group as some people think," Mr. Athey adds.

John O'Neill takes such criticism with the same studied calm he exhibits in talking about taxes and spending. "I'm not a rabble-rouser," he says, responding to the sharpest charge. "I'm the eyes and ears of the taxpayer."

Also the voice. He is a frequent caller to radio talk shows ("I was on the air three times yesterday" he boasted one day last month); speaker at community functions; testifier at legislative hearings. To keep up with what's going on, he travels up to 500 miles a week and racks up more than $50 a month in long distance phone calls to representatives of the Maryland Taxpayers Association in 15 counties and Baltimore City.

The phone number in the taxpayers association brochure rings at his spacious home in Ruxton; the organization's control room is a spare second-floor bedroom, where he cranks out letters and coughs up budget analyses on his home computer. "I've had three days' vacation this year," he says. Recent operations for a hernia and surgery on his eyelids have slowed him hardly a whit. "I'm in good physical shape," he declares. "I do heavy yard work and I'm the maintenance man for the houses of my daughters," one of whom is widowed, the other divorced.

His wife, Carlyn, takes his energy and enthusiasm in stride. "I don't have that kind of drive personally," she says. "But he and I have been married over 50 years. I'm accustomed to him getting involved in this or that."

An accountant by training and former head of Lion Brothers, an Owings Mills company that bills itself as the world's largest maker of embroidered insignia, Mr. O'Neill says he has long harbored concerns about governmental fiscal responsibility; nearly 30 years ago, he was vice chairman of the Baltimore County Revenue Authority, a quasi-governmental body set up to construct and manage parking facilities.

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