Painful reality jolts Baltimore Co. Other suburbs feel fewer economic ills

February 21, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Like a 40-something softball player with bad knees, Baltimore County is limping toward the 21st century without the economic energy of its suburban metropolitan mates.

That slowdown, and the stagnation of the county's tax base, form a troubling backdrop to the painful layoffs of 392 employees and the closings of libraries, senior centers and clinics announced Feb. 11.

Had the county not done some thing to reduce the size of government now, said Budget Director Fred Homan, it would surely face more spending cuts or higher taxes in the future.

All of Maryland's subdivisions have suffered from reductions in state aid and revenue shortfalls brought on by the recession. But Baltimore County's downsizing of its government comes against statistical backdrop that shows an economy growing much more slowly than those of Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he's tried to convince residents of this for 10 months.

"Indeed, our county is changing," he said. "Our tax base is eroded and our costs are going up. We have more retired people and more people of lower income."

In three key indicators of economic growth -- net taxable income, employment and assessable property tax base -- Baltimore County is lagging, according to figures from the 1990 Census, state economic reports and the county's budget office.

At the same time, the 1990 federal census revealed that the county's population is growing more slowly. And its growth is in the population that's most expensive for government.

The numbers of senior citizens and young children -- who need the most public services and pay the least income taxes -- are growing at much faster rates than are the ranks of working adults.

And many young working couples are buying houses in the higher growth counties and in southern Pennsylvania to avoid Baltimore County's higher home prices and growing urbanization.

Baltimore County's population grew by 5.6 percent between 1980 and 1990, census figures show, compared with 15.2 percent in Anne Arundel County, 57.9 percent in Howard, 24.8 percent in Harford and 28 percent in Carroll County.

But the number of Baltimore County residents between the ages of 65 and 74 grew 36 percent during that period, while the number of children under 5 grew 32 percent. That means more expensive schools and teachers, and more medical and social ** care for seniors.

Similarly, the number of poor people who need help from county government also has grown rapidly. The county's welfare caseload doubled in the past four years alone, according to social services officials.

Employment in Baltimore County increased by 32.8 percent between 1982 and 1989, census figures show, about half the growth rate of the surrounding counties. In the metropolitan area, only Baltimore City reported slower growth -- a mere 8.8 percent.

Slower employment growth means less income to tax. Baltimore County's net taxable income rose by only 0.3 percent in 1991, compared with 2.1 percent in Anne Arundel, 4.6 percent in both Howard and Harford and 1.7 percent in Carroll. Net taxable income actually dropped 0.3 percent in Baltimore City -- the first time that has happened in 25 years.

The stagnation in the real estate market has finally hit all counties this year. Meanwhile, Baltimore County's property tax base grew by a paltry 3.4 percent this fiscal year, the fourth lowest growth rate in Maryland.

By way of comparison, Anne Arundel's tax base grew by 6 percent, Carroll's by 10.1 percent, Harford's by 4.4 percent and Howard's by 3.9 percent. Baltimore City's accessible base rose by only 1.6 percent.

For Baltimore County, that means there will be less money coming in and more demand for services, Mr. Homan said,

"Ultimately, it means that if we haven't downsized enough, the county will have to impose more user fees, reduce services, or raise taxes," he said.

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