When growth isn't a dirty word

April 06, 1995

Growth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to paraphrase another cliche, one man's suburban sprawl is another's income stream.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III bemoans the fact that his jurisdiction recorded the third slowest growth in income tax revenue in Maryland last year: 1.9 percent. Income tax receipts in similarly sized and urbanized Prince George's County grew twice as fast, at 4.3 percent.

Mr. Ruppersberger's lament that his county is taking a drubbing in the marketplace as middle-class home buyers head to Harford and Carroll counties and southern Pennsylvania is, ironically, the mirror image complaint about growth voiced by residents and politicians in those places.

Growth -- or more specifically, slowing it -- remains the hot political issue in all of Maryland's newer suburban counties around Baltimore and Washington, coursing 100 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line to the lower Potomac basin. But there's something more problematic than growth: too little of it, or too little of it with ample income.

Baltimore County is gaining residents, but many are lower-income families migrating from Baltimore City. The county, in turn, is losing higher-income residents to more distant suburbs. Some 55,000 Baltimoreans moved to Baltimore County from 1980 to 1992, but that was nearly offset by the 37,000 county residents who left for neighboring jurisdictions. Also, as long-time Baltimore countians age into retirement, their incomes drop.

In 1960, the median family income in Baltimore County was $7,098 -- 15 percent greater than the Baltimore region as a whole (it was the area's top jurisdiction in income then), 13 percent greater than the state average and 25 percent greater than the national average. Fast-forward to 1990 and the county looks decidedly worse. Its median household income of $44,502 was only 5 percent greater than the regional average (better only than the city), 1 percent less than the state average and 15 percent greater than the national median.

For that reason, the county lawmakers' securing of $2 million in Gov. Parris Glendening's second supplementary budget last week for infrastructure in Owings Mills is important. The county itself has budgeted $28 million for roads, parks, water and sewer in that town center area over the next three years.

With its fashionable shopping mall and Metro line, Owings Mills may be the county's best bet into the next century to retain and attract families with higher incomes, who might be enticed otherwise by Howard or Anne Arundel counties. That, in turn, should generate more revenue the county can use to help rejuvenate its older neighborhoods with the hope that those will be more attractive to young families in the future.

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