Tax cap bill may face 2nd defeat Debate lacks heat of its predecessor

October 06, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Two years ago, a measure that appeared on the county ballot to limit the growth of property taxes seemed like a sure winner. One pre-election poll predicted it would carry two-thirds of the vote.

But on election day, the initiative lost with barely 45 percent of the vote, the victim of fierce campaigning by the Maryland State Teachers' Association (MSTA) and a local group, Fairness for All County Taxpayers (FACT).

A similar measure is on the Nov. 3 ballot, but it seems to be attracting little attention. And its supporters aren't willing to bet that it will pass.

"I don't have any illusions this time. We may well lose this. I won't be surprised either way," said Robert Schaeffer, a retired Navy commander who heads the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association.

"I think it will be interesting to see how the voters respond to this," said County Executive Robert R. Neall, who was an outspoken opponent of the tax cap during his 1990 campaign.

Mr. Neall said he will play a more low-key role in the fight against this tax cap, which would hold annual increases in county revenue to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. He prefers to point to his efforts to reduce the size of county government and make it operate more efficiently.

A coalition of teachers, other public employee unions and activist groups is planning a television advertising campaign to oppose this tax cap as well others on the ballot in Montgomery, Prince George's and Carroll counties, said Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the MSTA.

But interest in the issue, which captured intense media and voter attention in 1990, is not as great this time around, she added.

Mr. Schaeffer said he is prepared for the media campaign against the measure, which he believes played a major role in the defeat of the tax cap two years ago.

"The teachers' union went hysterical and, together with the public employee unions, dumped several hundred thousand dollars in a smear campaign against this measure," he said. "They scared everyone to death."

While Mr. Neall insisted that his efforts to cut the cost of government have obviated the need for a tax cap, Mr. Schaeffer argued that it is as necessary now as it was two years ago.

He scoffed at Mr. Neall's rainy day fund and his efforts to reduce the size of county government to make up for the loss of state money.

"Some people call that prudent. I call that bad leadership, or no leadership at all," Mr. Schaeffer said. Rather, Mr. Neall should be fighting to keep the tax money that goes to state government in the county, he said.

Local government should raise revenue through consumption taxes instead of property taxes, he said. That way, the services "would be paid for by the people who can afford to pay for them," he said.

But Mr. Neall said that the tax cap will cause problems, not solve them.

"It's bad fiscal policy. It's bad tax policy," Mr. Neall said. "The tax cap will not solve our fundamental problem, which is how big our government should be and from where we will derive our revenues to support it."

Mr. Neall said he has cut the size of the government with a voluntary early retirement program that induced 149 employees to leave the county work force. He said he plans to leave 50 of those jobs vacant, at a savings of about $2 million a year, and cut another 10 percent from the employee rolls by December 1994.

Mr. Neall also said he has tried to change the mind-set of county employees who spent freely during the fiscal boom years of the 1980s.

"We're being real careful. We're trying real hard," Mr. Neall said. "I haven't seen any big exposes in the newspapers about how we're burning money over here."

Mr. Neall is faced with the loss of $15 million in state aid for the next fiscal year. The prospect of balancing a budget if the tax cap passes is not appealing.

According to projections from the county budget office, the county could lose $25.4 million from a reported $263.9 million in property tax revenue in the 1993 fiscal year should the tax cap pass.

The county could lose another $10 million the following year and $22 million the year after.

Those numbers spell possible disaster for county services, according to tax cap opponents.

Former Councilwoman Carol B. Baker, a founder of FACT, said the loss in revenue from this measure combined with the state cuts over the past two years could lead to a reduction of one-sixth of the county budget.

"That's very frightening," she said.

The result would be deep cuts in county services, especially in fire and police protection and education, which would hamper the government's ability to respond to any critical needs.

"You have to figure you're going to start cutting positions when you cut that deeply," she said.

"To me, it's illogical to tie the hands of local government to respond to the needs of people," she added.

And despite Mr. Schaeffer's insistence that his proposal won't hurt government services, Thomas J. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said that it would.

"Even though Bob Schaeffer says it's not going to impact fire, it's not going to impact police, it's not going to impact schools, it does," he said.

If the measure should lose again, Mr. Schaeffer said this will be his last attempt.

"There's not going to be another try," he said.

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