No Magic in Carroll's Tax Limit

August 28, 1992

Carroll County's charter board wants county voters to approve its proposed charter on Nov. 3, and the nine-member group believes it has included a provision that will greatly improve chances of passage. The magic language: A county council would be prohibited from raising property taxes more than the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index.

The charter board wants to assuage the fear that charter government means skyrocketing costs and more taxes. In the past two years, efforts to enact charter government in Frederick and Garrett counties failed. Fear of burgeoning government was the reason; a majority of voters in these counties believes there is a causal relationship between the form of government and the seemingly inexorable increase in local government costs.

Population growth -- not the form of government -- is responsible for the swelling of local government budgets. Having a county executive and staff, along with a county council, costs money, but when a population increases by 30 percent in a decade -- as Carroll's did from 1980 to 1990 -- and continues to grow, the cost of government is bound to increase to satisfy the demand for services. Schools, parks and libraries have to be built. More law enforcement officers have to be hired. More jail cells are needed. More senior centers are opened. The list goes on.

Enacting a charter provision to limit a county council's ability to increase property taxes is a fiscal sleight of hand. Public services have to be paid for. It is irrelevant whether the county has a five-member council or three commissioners. Moreover, the Consumer Price Index, which measures a basket of goods at the consumer level, has little in common with the costs of local government. Comparing price increases in groceries to the cost of adding three dozen teachers to a new school or to a new drug treatment program is nonsensical.

The charter board should focus its attention on insuring that elected government officials will be responsive and accountable the taxpayers. These officials need flexibility to deal with conditions as they exist at the time -- not based on today's notions of future need. The charter board may think it is hoodwinking the electorate by including the property tax limit in the proposed charter. What the board is doing could result in lasting damage to the county and its taxpayers.

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