It May Not Last, But Schaeffer's Loving It

COMMENT

November 15, 1992|By ELISE ARMACOST

Contrary to what some people think, Bob Schaeffer is not stupid.

He may still be crowing over his victorious crusade to cap property taxes and kick County Council members out of office, but he knows not to let himself get too far off the ground. Political moods come and go, and it just so happens that the people's current revulsion toward government suits his purpose.

Still, if Mr. Schaeffer wants to gloat (and he does), there's no time like the present.

In the 3 1/2 years since he appointed himself generalissimo of Anne Arundel tax rebels, he has been lampooned, loathed and generally dismissed as a nut. With the exception of Sheriff Robert Pepersack (also considered a nut in some quarters), Mr. Schaeffer doesn't like anybody in county government very much, and the feeling is mutual.

County Executive Robert R. Neall has said he'd like to "punch him in the mouth." "Arrogant" and "paranoid" are two of the nicer things former Councilwoman Carole Baker, founder of Fairness for All County Taxpayers, has had to say about him.

It was, therefore, more than a victory when 70 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of Mr. Schaeffer's tax cap, and another 77 percent agreed council members must go after eight years. It was vindication. It was revenge. He might as well have walked into the Arundel Center and thumbed his nose at everyone who had ever called him crazy.

But while the election proved a majority shares Mr. Schaeffer's anger, it did not validate his ideas. His central thesis -- that government can restrict annual property tax growth to no more than 4.5 percent without damaging basic services -- remains to be tested.

This will take time. The cap, coupled with lagging income tax and other revenues, may force the elimination this year of some programs and employees deemed non-essential. But Mr. Neall was moving in that direction anyway. Because the tax caps have a cumulative effect, it will probably be two to four years before we see any real erosion of basic services.

Mr. Schaeffer insists that won't happen if government is downsized by 20 percent -- a figure he cites based on his experience with budgets in the U.S. Navy. Right now, there are 4,000 county employees, not counting those in the Board of Education. A 20 percent reduction would mean the loss of 800 jobs.

Where would these kinds of cuts come from? It's generally accepted that government has grown too big, but by how much? No one has answered these questions, including Mr. Schaeffer. He knows a good bit about county government, but not enough to be able to specify where reductions could be made.

"I don't have all the wonderful inside information. [Mr. Neall's] got to know these things," he says. "But if I was on the inside looking out, I sure as hell would know what to get rid of."

In the end, the success or failure of the tax cap theory will not be determined solely by how much government waste exists. What happens to other revenue sources, such as income and transfer taxes, will make a big difference. Since the recession, these revenues have been lagging; that is why the county has relied more heavily on property taxes these last two years. The tax cap's impact will largely depend on whether other revenues offset the loss.

Another question is just how little are citizens willing to live with in terms of government services. No one really knows. Are people willing, if need be, to pay for certain library services? To use the B&A Trail? To give up recreation programs? To have their trash picked up only once a week? Even if they are, is it in the general public's interest to force those who cannot afford to pay to give up reading or playing or access to health programs?

Tax caps have not enjoyed a good track record in other counties where they have been tried. Bob Schaeffer knows this. That is why he wants to check off as many items on his agenda as possible while the public is still on his side. And that's why he's savoring his victory while he can.

He dug out a letter he had written to Councilwoman Virginia P. Clagett back in May 1989, before anyone had ever heard of him.

"I promise you will hear from me again," he wrote. "If you fail to address the property tax fairly, I will do everything in my power to see that you have a revolt in your hands."

The future might prove all his ideas wrong. But for now, Bob Schaeffer is smiling and saying, "I told you so."

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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