Foes wear down Gray's effort to raise piggyback tax

May 20, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Midway through Monday night's tax protest, Councilman C. Vernon Gray threw in the towel.

His plan to increase the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 52 percent for fiscal 1993 was all but dead, he said. The County Council still has to vote on the tax resolution tomorrow, but the votes for passage probably are not there. The piggyback tax is the percentage of state income taxes collected for local use.

"The council has not taken any action on the piggyback tax and is not likely to approve an increase," Gray said.

Despite Gray's announcement, a score of people wearing orange signs saying "No more taxes" persevered till after midnight at the council's meeting to tell members how they felt about the proposed increase.

For Columbia resident Patrick Dornan, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, the issue was more than taxes. He said he believed Gray, D-3rd, and Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, were proposing the tax in an underhanded way.

"If this tax were proposed as an act, it would not escape the county executive's veto," he said. "I find the use of a resolution abhorrent."

Gray said a resolution, which takes effect immediately upon passage and cannot be vetoed, was necessary if the legislation were to be enacted by June 1 -- a state-mandated deadline.

Dornan was unmoved.

"The Howard County Council wants to hit the taxpayers again after we've been down for almost two years," he said. "We need to tell the Board of Education what we tell everybody else. We cannot afford everything right now."

Gray proposed the piggyback increase to fully fund the school board's budget request. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has cut the board's request by $2.2 million.

The council can restore what the executive cuts from the education portion of the budget by cutting elsewhere in the budget or by raising taxes.

Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, prefers cutting.

"I am not part of the council action" to raise taxes, he told Dornan. "I, for one, am looking to cut $1.1 million from the education portion of the budget and am relatively optimistic" it can be done. Farragut said his optimism was based on a letter he received earlier in the day from Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

Hickey told Farragut the school board could trim the $1.1 million without laying off people. Ecker, on the other hand, told Farragut he cannot take more than a $500,000 cut in the non-education portion of the budget without laying off people.

The gist of most testimony Monday was that it's the wrong time to raise taxes.

Some people, like Seth Layton of Columbia, said they could oppose a tax increase and still be pro-education.

"I am both pro-education and anti-tax," Layton said. "The time has come to put the breaks on spending.

"This is not a school system vs. taxpayer issue. I don't believe Mr. Gray and Ms. Pendergrass are any more interested in education [because of their sponsorship of the piggyback measure] than Mr. Farragut, Mr. [Charles C.] Feaga, and Mr. [Darrel] Drown are."

"I do not oppose taxes, I oppose this tax," said Richard Buczek of Ellicott City.

Lynn Benton, testifying on behalf of the executive committee of the PTA Council, said the council supports the piggyback proposal provided the tax reverts to the 50 percent level in two years. Pendergrass said the resolution had been amended to do just that.

Lynn Robeson of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and James Truby of the Economic Forum said a tax increase at this time would hamper the county's economic recovery.

"The consensus of our members . . . is that the salary increases [offered to county employees in the Ecker proposal] are very attractive compared to the increases within our member organizations," Truby said. "We encourage the council to continue to find cost-effective ways to deliver services."

The piggyback tax was not the only tax proposal to draw fire Monday. Motel owners along U.S. 1 said a proposed 5 percent hotel-motel tax could ruin them.

"I'm very frightened," said Dennis M. Frock. "We don't have the advantage of the big guys." He urged the council to amend the bill to exempt motels with 50 units or less.

But Pete Mangione, executive director of the 400-unit Turf Valley, also resisted being lumped in with the so-called big guys.

"We have yet to hit 50 percent [occupancy] for the year," he said. "Turf Valley is not in a situation now where we can afford this."

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