Reality Check in Manchester CARROLL COUNTY

April 01, 1993

Members of Manchester's town council are learning the hard way that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Last spring, the town council lowered the property tax rate from 42 cents to 39 cents per $100 of assessed value. That gave Manchester the lowest rate in Carroll County.

Now comes the unpleasant news that in order to balance this year's budget, the council must consider a 6-cent increase in the tax rate. For the average homeowner, that would amount to about $25 a year -- or 50 cents a week.

Judging from the howls and wails from at least two members of the town's council, one might think the increase was totally unjustified. But there is ample reason for it.

For the past 20 years, Manchester has been very fortunate. Its assessable base has increased a dramatic 520 percent, allowing for a low property tax rate. Since 1974, when it was 70 cents, the town's property tax rate has declined by 44 percent. In recent years, however, growth in Manchester's assessable base has slowed, which means the rate must increase for the town to maintain its purchasing power.

During the last 20 years, retail prices have increased by 128 percent. Government is no different from any other consumer. It, too, must adjust for inflation. Maintaining the town's 82 acres of parks costs more today, as do police cars and office supplies and postage stamps.

Increasing the salaries of 14 town employees seems to have touched a raw nerve with town councilmen John A. Riley and Gerald H. Bollinger. As it is, Manchester's pay scale lags behind nearby jurisdictions. To deny these town employees raises may result in many of them leaving for more attractive opportunities. A case in point is the town's clerk/treasurer. He quit last week to take a local government job in York, Pa., where he will receive a 50 percent increase in his salary and benefits.

When the council lowered the property tax rate, it should have known the town was living on borrowed time. To contemplate further cuts in the rate, as some are suggesting, is to court financial disaster. That action might make for great political grandstanding, but it would only undermine Manchester's solid financial foundation and lead to a deterioration in community services.

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