Baltimore Co.'s dilemma: Spend more or tax less?

May 19, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

County Councilman Douglas B. Riley believes the best way to secure Baltimore County's future and prevent a Baltimore-style urban decline is to "promote education and safety."

That's why the Towson Republican was among the council members this year who wanted to use money cut from the annual budget to hire more police officers and teachers rather than to cut taxes.

Councilman Donald Mason, a Dundalk Democrat, thinks the government has grown too fat, even after last year's layoffs, and that taxes and spending must be cut to keep the county the good place to live it has been for the past 40 years. That's why he wanted to slice $8.5 million from County Executive Roger B. Hayden's $1.26 billion spending plan and cut 5.5 cents off the property tax rate.

And Councilman Melvin G. Mintz of Pikesville, a Democratic candidate for county executive, said he wanted to please everyone through cutting taxes and hiring more police and teachers by trimming the amount of money set aside for the county's surplus rainy-day fund.

In the end, the council cut $1.5 million from the budget and used it to take a cent off the $2.865 property tax rate, which will save the average county homeowner $4 a year.

Those seemingly conflicting impulses -- to cut taxes and increase spending -- made council budget deliberations symbolic of the larger dilemma that confronts the county as it becomes more urbanized.

The council members reflected pressures from constituents who can't see a clear future for a slow-growth county that simultaneously has an aging population and 3,000 new schoolchildren each year.

With population growth down and housing more expensive, the county doesn't expect the new revenues that faster-growing counties use to pay for salary increases, schools and roads.

At the same time, officials want to avoid the slow decline the city has experienced over the last 40 years as middle-class residents have moved to new developments.

In dealing with that, officials find themselves caught between groups of constituents, each insisting it alone knows what must be done.

One group argues that if property taxes don't go down, the county won't be able to attract the new businesses and residents necessary to take up the slack, and a general decline surely will follow.

John D. O'Neill, an architect of the 1990 anti-tax movement, says plenty could be cut in the budget.

He cited his own family's circumstances as demonstrating a trend. "I have five great-grandchildren, and four of them live outside Baltimore County," the Ruxton resident said.

Another segment insists that the county will decline slowly if it doesn't raise taxes to get the money needed to improve its school system, to reassure people about personal safety, and to improve its infrastructure and recreational facilities.

Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the group's polls indicate that people are willing to pay taxes if they know the money will go for more teachers and police.

Mr. Mintz perhaps personifies the contortions county politicians feel the need to attempt, though he is not alone. His Pikesville-Randallstown district was the only area in the county to reject firmly the 1990 property tax revolt that swept County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and five of seven council members out of office. Residents of the district consistently support more spending for education, recycling, recreation and other services.

Yet Mr. Mintz has advocated small property tax cuts each year, perhaps reflecting efforts to appeal to voters elsewhere in the county.

Council Chairman William A. Howard IV, elected to his northeastern seat as part of the 1990 revolt, agreed with Mr. Mintz that the county -- this year at least -- can satisfy everyone by cutting taxes and hiring more police and teachers.

"There is money in the budget that we identified that can be used for other purposes," he said. The administration, which alone has the power to reallocate that money, can use it to hire more police and teachers during the year, he said.

To address problems associated with becoming more urban, the county has begun work on a 20-year plan to rejuvenate older neighborhoods and make them affordable and attractive to young people who now often seek cheaper housing in Harford and Carroll counties and southern Pennsylvania.

"Somewhere along the line, we've got to make some carefully thought out investments," said P. David Fields, a former planning director detailed to create the plan.

That doesn't mean spending money on every problem but also doesn't mean just cutting everything back, he said.

The hope is that if he is successful, each county budget will be built with an eye toward aiding the plan and that each year's council deliberations will have the same objective.

Mr. Fields said his goal is to offer the voters in 1996 a bond referendum that would provide money to rebuild older neighborhoods and keep the county a place where young people will stay and start families.

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