Baltimore County's $4 Windfall

May 23, 1994

For Baltimore County residents uncertain about how to spend the $4 they'll save from the County Council's penny cut in the property tax, here's a suggestion: Invest in antacid tablets. They'll come in handy as you try to digest the reasoning behind the council's myopic and blatantly political move.

Let council members and County Executive Roger Hayden, who agreed to the action, crow about the gift they're bestowing on taxpayers. Some gift. All it means is that the average property tax bill will rise $27 next year instead of the $31 cited last month in Mr. Hayden's budget proposal.

The $4 windfall would be laughable if it didn't come at such a potentially high cost to the county. Each penny decrease in the property tax costs the county coffers $1.5 million. Officials say the tax bite is harmless because it won't affect public services this year. However, it's likely to bite back in years to come. The Maryland government is sounding dire predictions of a $1 billion deficit over the next four years. To this impending crisis, add concerns about the fragility of the economic recovery and the increasing neediness of a Baltimore County that daily grows more urbanized and more populated. The county will require all the revenue it can get, especially if the state forces the subdivisions to pick up more of their own bills, as is expected.

But who in elective office worries about tomorrow when there's an election to be won today? And make no mistake, the old bugaboo of election-year politics accounts for the council's cosmetic surgery on the tax. Five of the seven council members were elected in 1990 by a livid electorate whose pet peeve was high property taxes. The same level of anger isn't there this year. Still, the lesson from the previous campaign isn't lost on the council incumbents. They determined, then, to help their re-election chances with the tax reduction.

Meantime, council members Mel Mintz of Pikesville and Dutch Ruppersberger of Timonium are vying to be the Democratic nominee for county executive, though their grandstanding on the tax issue left both men looking less than leader-like. Mr. Mintz again made his reckless call for a tax cut funded from the crucial "rainy day" surplus. Mr. Ruppersberger mocked the cut but voted for it anyway, claiming the budget wouldn't otherwise pass.

This whole episode hardly constitutes a new chapter in "Profiles in Courage." While the council and the county executive might spell relief with a $4 tax reduction, many citizens will probably just come down with a bad case of gas.

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