Pricey dinners at taxpayers' expense! County cars sold to favored employees at bargain prices! Higher taxes! Fewer services!
Is this a rerun of Baltimore County's 1990 election, or what?
Two years ago, a small group of gadflys and north county tax protesters dogged Dennis F. Rasmussen's re-election campaign with accusations of petty spending abuses, unnecessary tax increases and too many government perks. Bumper stickers lambasted "Taxmussen." It was a tactic that helped sweep into office the then-obscure challenger, Roger B. Hayden.
But now Mr. Hayden is being harangued. By the same group. For the same reasons.
The April issue of the Challenger, a newspaper published by Rasmussen critics who supported Mr. Hayden in 1990, features a cartoon lampooning the county executive. It depicts Mr. Hayden as a waiter telling several fat diners not to worry about the cost of their meals.
"We'll fire some school nurses!" the Hayden caricature insists -- a reference to an unpopular cut in money for the nurses.
The discontent was prompted, in part, by recent reports that Hayden appointee Kenneth C. Nohe, director of the county's Economic Development Commission, spent $1,721 on restaurant meals for county officials and private business people in January alone.
One dinner, at an East Towson restaurant where 13 people discussed the county's future economic development plans, cost $564. The tab reached $813 the next night when Mr. Nohe wined and dined 19 people, including the county executive and local businessmen.
Mr. Hayden has responded to information about the meal expenses by noting that the commission's entertainment budget lower this year than last.
The money Mr. Nohe spent was, indeed, budgeted for business entertainment. But, with county workers on furlough, some of the same disgruntled taxpayers who criticized Mr. Rasmussen are downright angry with Mr. Hayden.
"We criticize waste," said Arthur Kutcher, a Towson planner, architect and persistent critic who drew the cartoon in the Challenger. "It was offensive" then -- during the pre-recessionary Rasmussen time. "It's now outrageous," he said.
For the protesters, the problem is broader than a few high-priced dinners. Mr. Hayden -- feeling the pinch of state funding cuts -- asked state lawmakers this year to support legislation giving local governments the power to raise the piggyback income tax from 50 percent to 60 percent of state income tax -- a change for which Mr. Rasmussen fought in 1989.
The protesters are also irked that the Hayden administration allowed three former Rasmussen appointees and one other worker to buy county cars at bargain prices, and let some of them pay back the county interest-free.
Mr. Rasmussen sold one county car to a local labor group president under similar terms.
In December 1990, the Hayden administration let Robert Hughes, Mr. Rasmussen's press secretary, buy the 1987 Ford Taurus he used in that job for $2,400 interest-free. He is paying the county $100 a month. Former Administrative Officer Frank C. Robey Jr. bought his 1987 Mercury Sable in June 1991 for $2,700. Kenneth Dryden, a Rasmussen aide ultimately rehired by the Hayden administration, purchased a 1989 Mercury Cougar for $7,000 in February 1991, again with no interest.
Mr. Hayden subsequently changed county policy to prohibit the sale of cars to county employees.
But county officials said the cars were sold as is, and could not be considered retail sales.
They defended the no-interest payments on the grounds that it would have been too much trouble to calculate interest on such small debts. Moreover, they said the county lost no money selling the cars at dealer auction prices because all surplus vehicles are sold at auction to dealers anyway.
But, while the county got $10,300 for the much-criticized 1989 Lincoln Town Car that County Executive Rasmussen used, it replaced it with a 1991 Ford for Mr. Hayden at a cost of $15,900.
The tax protesters are also angry at the Hayden administration for opposing a bill in the General Assembly this session which would have let the county, rather than the state, do property tax assessments.
Mr. Hayden, squeezed by budget constraints, said it would have cost too much to implement the proposal.
Finally, when Mr. Hayden threw a delegation of north county tax protesters out of his office March 20, his political stock fell to a new low among those who championed him in 1990.
The executive has said repeatedly that his critics ignore the fact that the county lost nearly $60 million this fiscal year from state budget cuts and drops in revenue caused by the recession -- and that they forget he has tried to slice expenses by cutting jobs, imposing furloughs and pinching pennies: He even canceled newspaper subscriptions to save $75 a year.