Geography lesson really pays off

August 08, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

North Laurel resident Michael Ratcliffe has been short-changed on his 15 minutes of fame.

Howard County is $75,486 richer because of his efforts, yet he was not mentioned Friday at a news conference celebrating the event.

A news release noting that the county will be receiving revenue "erroneously credited to other counties," refers to Mr. Ratcliffe only as

"a Howard County citizen," and not by name.

For the record, Mr. Ratcliffe discovered a coding error on his state income tax return -- an error that led to his having a higher tax bill. The Prince George's tax rate is 60 percent of the state tax bill. Howard's is 50 percent.

It was not just a higher tax bill that concerned Mr. Ratcliffe. He was concerned that the error could mean that Prince George's County was getting money that should be going to Howard.

Del. Martin G. Madden, R-13B, and County Executive Charles I. Ecker worried about that as well and asked the state comptroller about it. Sure enough, the state thought 104 North Laurel residents were living in other counties and was sending money there instead of here.

The $75,486 credited to those counties in 1992 will be taken away and given to Howard instead, state officials promise. Money may also be returned for 1991, but it is impossible to check records further back than that, state officials told Mr. Madden and Mr. Ecker.

The coding problem came about because taxpayers or state officials wrongfully assumed that a person with a Laurel address lives in Prince George's County. The city of Laurel is in Prince George's. Everything north of the Patuxent River is in Howard.

The federal government has standard codes for states and counties, but to his surprise, the state is not using them, said Mr. Ratcliffe, who is a geographer for the Census Bureau. Assessing taxes on the basis of postal place names rather than political jurisdictions is "a problem across the county," he said.

Indeed, a fellow geographer who is working on the problem asked Mr. Ratcliffe recently if he knew of any of such place in Maryland.

"I live in one," Mr. Ratcliffe replied. Two weeks later Mr. Ratcliffe fell victim to the state's coding error.

Mr. Ratcliffe thinks similar mistakes are probably occurring in Mount Airy and Sykesville, because, like Laurel, they border on two counties.

Since those areas are more sparsely populated, he assumes only a handful of people would be affected. The 104 Laurel errors occurred in a zip code populated by 10,000 to 12,000 people, he said.

Although he did not know he had contributed to the county's windfall until told by a reporter, Mr. Ratcliffe does not resent not having been invited to Friday's news conference.

"It's nice to hear that a geographer could have an impact like that," he said. "People have so little knowledge of geography these days." Getting $75,000 for the county "is a good thing for the discipline."

Mr. Ecker said the money will go into the 1993 budget and will not be used for any specific purpose.

Mr. Madden said he understands that will be the case with this year's budget, but hopes next year, Mr. Ecker will increase the amount of money available for victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Mr. Madden wants Mr. Ecker to wage a publicity campaign urging the county's border residents to be sure to note on their state returns that they live in Howard.

Although Mr. Ratcliffe did exactly that and was still billed incorrectly by the state, Mr. Madden thinks many of the other 103 people billed incorrectly may be unaware they live in the county.

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