Baltimore County's one-cent sop

May 19, 1994

If ever a political action grew out of the worst kind of election-year posturing, it is the Baltimore County Council's agreement to pass County Executive Roger Hayden's fiscal 1995 budget proposal while cutting the property tax by a cent.

At least two of the seven council members publicly mocked the agreement for the political sop it is. Yet they and four of their colleagues are going along with it. Why? For starters, five members were elected in 1990 by an electorate upset about many things but mainly about property taxes. Though the same level of public anger is no longer present, the council members undoubtedly learned a lesson from the previous campaign and have determined to boost their re-election chances with this cosmetic tax cut.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the two most senior council members, Mel Mintz of Pikesville and Dutch Ruppersberger of Timonium, are battling to be the Democratic nominee for county executive. Mr. Mintz has habitually -- and recklessly -- pushed property tax cuts, even suggesting they be funded with cash from the "rainy day" surplus that serves as the county's emergency savings account and the basis of its solid bond rating. This time around, when Mr. Mintz again floated a tax reduction, Mr. Ruppersberger called his colleague's bluff by arguing that $1.5 million -- the amount to be produced by the penny tax cut -- be taken from elsewhere in the Hayden proposal and used to hire more police.

Each position had three backers on the council, Dundalk's Don Mason taking his usual powder. When Mr. Hayden expressed support for the penny cut that would save each taxpayer a measly $4, the Ruppersberger faction concluded it had to OK the reduction or get into a messy fight over the matter. Politically savvy, maybe. Courageous, no.

The pols claim the cut is harmless because it will have no impact on county services -- this year. But what about years to come? The Maryland government expects a $200 million deficit in fiscal 1997. Moreover, the economic recovery, modest to date, could turn south. Meanwhile, Baltimore County grows more urban, more populated, more needful. The county will require every bit of revenue it can get, especially if the state forces the subdivisions to pick up more of their own bills.

The next term's county executive, whoever he or she will be, is likely to rue the fiscal 1995 budget agreement, because the politically expedient tax bite it contains will almost certainly bite back.

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