Group Promises To Resume War On Property Taxes

Proposed Charter Amendment Would Limit Revenues

April 02, 1992|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

After a year of uneasy peace, the war on property taxes will resume this month when tax foes start working for a new charter amendment.

The Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association has kept a low profile sincelosing a 1990 bid for a charter amendment that would have limited county property tax revenues. The group decided County Executive RobertR. Neall ought to have time to effect property tax and spending reforms on his own, said Robert Schaeffer, founder and president of AATA.

But a year later, with state aid dwindling, labor unions negotiating for pay raises and many citizens begging him to preserve services, Neall says he cannot cut the property tax rate in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Tax rebels aren't buying. This month, Schaeffersaid, they begin collecting 10,000 signatures to put the property tax revenue cap back on the ballot. They also begin pushing for a charter amendment limiting County Council members -- including the currentrepresentatives -- to two four-year terms.

"This is directly tiedto the tax movement," Schaeffer said. "I can't force these people tochange the tax rate year after year, but I can change the people."

AATA has until August to gather the signatures.

In 1990, voters rejected the tax cap by 10,000 votes. This year, Schaeffer predicts the outcome will be different.

"We didn't get our message out plainenough" in 1990, Schaeffer said. The wording of the amendment was soconvoluted and confusing that many people voted against it because they didn't understand.

The old amendment filled a legal-sized page. The new one consists of two simple sentences. Like the old measure,it limits property tax revenue growth to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

Money, or rather the lack of it, was another big problem in 1990. The anti-tax leaders were flat broke in the final days of the campaign and could not compete with well-financed labor unions that opposed the revenue cap with extensive mailings and media advertising campaigns, Schaeffer said.

This time, he vowed, "We'll be ready." AATA already has started raising money and looking for volunteers to help collect signatures and campaign.

AATArecently opened an office in Crownsville, from which Schaeffer has begun mapping a campaign strategy. To start with, he's targeting waterfront property owners, whose assessments have skyrocketed, and the 21,000 citizens who signed petitions two years ago.

Perhaps the biggest advantage the tax rebels enjoy this year is the fact that there is no county executive's race to distract voters.

Many political observers believe 1990 voters, concerned about taxes but unsure about the proposed cap, resolved the conflict by voting for Neall, a Republican who promised to try to limit property tax revenue growth to 5 percent a year.

"He isn't running this time, so there won't be any choice to make," said Schaeffer.

Though Neall is known as a fiscal conservative and numbers-cruncher, anti-tax leaders -- who support scaling back the size of government further despite unprecedented budgetcuts during the last year -- feel his hold on the purse strings is not tight enough.

"He thinks government should be run efficiently, but I don't think he thinks government should be downsized," Schaeffer said.

An advisory panel on county spending, of which Schaeffer is a member, recommended that Neall increase his fiscal 1993 budget byno more than 1.4 percent. Though Schaeffer went along with the recommendation, he believes the executive wouldn't have to increase it at all if he slashed enough perks and excess bureaucracy.

Louise Hayman, Neall's press secretary, said the new budget, to be released May 1, will reflect some downsizing -- too much for residents who begged Neall not to cut school spending at a budget hearings last month, andnot enough for tax rebels.

AATA's ideas are "unrealistic," she said.

The group, founded by Schaeffer in 1989, has a mailing list of800 dues-paying members and chapters in counties across Maryland. The Maryland Taxpayers Association, also started by Schaeffer, serves as an umbrella group under which the county organizations operate.

Though dismissed by some political leaders as a radical conservative group, AATA has had an impact. After pressuring Neall to create a commission to study property taxes, the executive has now promised a commission on economy and efficiency in government.

"We finally got some citizen participation and oversight, where, before AATA, there was no such animal," Schaeffer said. "I am immodestly claiming a certain amount of credit for the direction that things have taken."

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