Politicians, Like Generals, Fight the Last Campaign

June 05, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

They just don't get it. Those lesser-lights in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County councils still haven't figured out what the public wants from its elected leaders. The same holds true for most of this state's county executives and mayors.

What the people want, these politicians maintain, is lower taxes. ''Cut the property tax rate!'' is still their battle cry.

But is that really the most pressing thing on Marylanders' minds?

No way.

What's of paramount importance to citizens these days is public safety. There's a feeling afoot that the streets and neighborhoods of our communities are no longer safe. Fear of crime is the No. 1 issue for voters in 1994.

And yet elected council members in the city and Baltimore County are jumping through hoops to cut government programs so they can claim a slim reduction of the property tax rate.

In Baltimore County, the cut amounts to a savings of $4 on a $100,000 house. What a joke!

In the city, the cut amounts to a more hefty $20 savings. Big deal.

The irony is that when rising property values and assessments are taken into account, these political tax cuts evaporate. In Baltimore County, for instance, the bottom line for the owner of a $100,000 home is a $27 tax increase.

Why are these politicians playing this silly game when it is clear voters are in a panic over crime rather than the tax burden?

Because four years ago, voters were panicked over high taxes.

The tax revolt of that year resulted in a dramatic turnover in Baltimore County. Out went County Executive Dennis Rasmussen (dubbed ''Taxmussen'' by his many foes). Out went five of the seven incumbent council members. No wonder the current crop of incumbents is so fixated on lowering the property tax rate in this election year.

Still, who's going to get excited about a one-cent cut in the property-tax rate? Is any voter going to lavish praise on a Baltimore County councilman for this penny cut? It is such a blatant political sham that no voter will be fooled.

In the city, demagogic council members have their priorities mixed up. Crime is the problem that must be solved first and foremost. If that means forgoing a five-cent cut in the property-tax rate, so be it.

The questions city council members should have asked are these: How much is another 100 police officers worth to voters? Would home owners shell out $20 in return for these extra 100 cops on the beat?

You bet they would. In fact, they'd probably opt for spending an extra $100 a year if it meant a guarantee there'd be 500 additional police officers. Anything to make Baltimore a safe city again.

Yet not a peep was heard from the mayor about such a bold step. Not a whimper from the council members about dealing a body blow to the heavyweight crime challenge. Instead, the rhetoric centers on a five-cent tax cut. Twenty dollars a year.

Baltimore County, too, has a troubling crime epidemic, but there, too, officials did nothing to dramatically boost the number of police.

The continuing anger of the electorate -- we seem to be mad about everything -- has elected officials baffled and intimidated. That's especially true on the local level.

The signals from voters are mixed. ''Cut taxes, now!'' ''Hire more cops, now!'' What's a politician -- desperate to remain in office -- to do?

Easy: Follow the last election returns. And since the last election revolved around too-high taxes, the political trend this year is to try to pare back tax rates. It sounds logical, but it is years behind the times. Concerns of voters in 1990 don't match voter concerns in 1994. The funny thing is that so many politicians haven't noticed.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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