Montgomery and Baltimore: Tale of Two Jurisdictions

LANNY J. DAVIS

December 06, 1992|By LANNY J. DAVIS

There are two popular stereotypes of Montgomery County -- one promoted by a substantial portion of Montgomery's media and political leadership, and the other by its media/political counterpart in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The Montgomery County version sees the rest of the state unfairly taking too much of the county's tax money and giving little back.

The Baltimore counterpart sees Montgomery County as a bunch of wealthy, self-indulgent, (mostly) white people who can afford to pay taxes to help the poorer jurisdictions.

In fact, both stereotypes have some basis. But both are also misleadingly simplistic and, in important ways, downright wrong. And unless leaders in both areas understand the shortcomings of each other's perceptions and then get beyond them, the political consequences could be self-defeating for each jurisdiction.

*

Do Montgomery County residents send more tax money to the state government than the state sends back to their local government? Yes -- a lot more.

For example, in fiscal 1991, each resident of Montgomery County sent $1,585 to the state government, while the county government received back $330 per resident -- 21 cents received for every dollar sent, the lowest such ratio of any subdivision.

The people of Baltimore do a lot better. Each city resident in fiscal 1991 sent $766 to Annapolis and received back $705 per person -- a phenomenal return on investment of 92 cents on the dollar.

These disparities were exacerbated by the recent special session which eliminated state payment of social security for teachers, a program of which Montgomery was the largest recipient.

The result is that Montgomery County is getting $23 million less from the state this year than last, while other subdivisions show increases: Baltimore City, up $59 million; Baltimore County, up $14 million; Prince George's, up $3 million; Howard, up $2 million; Anne Arundel, up $1 million

One definition of paranoia is a persecution complex based on a kernel of truth. These numbers show that it's not all delusion by Montgomery Countians.

Also, these numbers show that there is more going on here than Baltimore receiving more aid than Montgomery because it has more poor people and greater needs.

Howard's median family income is about the same as Montgomery's -- and Baltimore County, Prince George's and Anne Arundel are not all that much below Montgomery. Yet, somehow, their legislative delegations did better than Montgomery's in resisting changes from the last budget to the current one.

The issue, then, is also one of political power -- and political effectiveness. And in recent years, and certainly in the recent special session of the legislature, the Montgomery delegation seems to have demonstrated that it lacked both.

*

There is no doubt that statistics support the notion that Montgomery County residents are wealthier on the average than residents of other subdivisions.

Montgomery's median annual family income is almost $62,000 -- more than twice that of Baltimore City's and the highest in the state.

Montgomery's assessable tax base ($29 billion) is more than three times the total of Baltimore City ($9 billion) and almost twice that of Prince George's and Baltimore County ($15 billion each).

Thus, while its tax rates are considerably lower than Baltimore's (by more than half), its residents pay higher total property taxes, since the tax base is so much higher. However, a statistic that might surprise both jurisdictions is that Montgomery County and Baltimore City residents pay approximately the same per capita taxes as a percentage of median family income.

In addition, Montgomery does not shrink from increasing its own taxes to pay for the quality of life it wants. The decision last year by the County Council to increase the piggy-back income tax rate from 50 percent to 60 percent added fuel to the county's tax revolt movement and required more than a little political fortitude.

But, there's another side of Montgomery County -- one which doesn't fit the stereotype of a wealthy, mostly-white, suburban oasis, and one which the rest of the state must come to understand.

* One out of four county families earns less than $35,000 a year -- and in most of these, both spouses are working full time.

* Enough meals are served to homeless people at county soup kitchens each month to feed a capacity crowd of 18,000-plus at the Capital Center.

* Section 8 public housing units now have more than 7,000 people on the waiting list. Of these, more than 1,250 are homeless.

* More than 90,000 people in the county are without health insurance at any one time. Breast cancer, tuberculosis and black newborn mortality rates are among the highest in the state.

School population statistics graphically show the demographic changes which have occurred in the county within the last decade.

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