Taxing Problem HOWARD COUNTY

September 30, 1993

With the announcement this week that Howard County's income tax revenue for fiscal year 1993 was $7.4 million more than the previous year's total, you might have thought there would be dancing in the streets from Elkridge to Long Corner. After all, the increase was among the highest reported in all of Maryland.

But there was not much in the way of celebration.

Not from county employees who will get a raise but were hoping for a larger one. (And in case anyone needed reminding that an election year looms, a hint could be taken from the fact that County Executive Charles I. Ecker and County Council members are wrestling over who deserves credit for the first proposed cost-of-living raise for municipal workers in more than three years.)

Government officials weren't in a jubilant mood, either. They're nervous because they don't yet know what caused the surplus. They might also be edgy for other reasons. While the extra $7.4 million will come in handy, it is accompanied by the news that property tax revenues are going to flatten. Meanwhile, the county continues to have an unhealthy ratio of residential properties to commercial ones -- by a 78 percent to 22 percent margin. Mr. Ecker would like to see a ratio along the lines of 70-30.

Recall that the executive, in his state of the county address last January, urged greater commercial growth so some of the local tax burden can be shifted from private citizens to businesses. He couldn't have been too tickled, then, when the County Council, acting as the Zoning Board, recently shot down a Rouse Co. request for a zoning change that would have enabled the Columbia-based developer to build a home-office-retail complex on a large land parcel in North Laurel.

What all this seems to add up to is a gnawing uncertainty about the future of Howard's tax sources. As the property tax rate and the resultant revenues hold steady, and as the residential-commercial ratio stays uncomfortably high, too much of the burden will remain on the shoulders of private citizens.

Perhaps the median income of Howard countians is high enough to sustain such a burden, but do county officials and residents believe that's the best way to handle this taxing problem?

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