Carroll ponders raising taxes County's equally unpopular alternative is to cut services

April 05, 1996|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

In conservative Carroll County, where new homes are rising as fast as a farmer's corn and government is often regarded suspiciously, county commissioners are pondering something radical: raising property taxes.

Faced with out-of-control growth, the commissioners, all Republicans elected 18 months ago on an emphatic no-new-taxes platform, recently concluded a remarkable two-week marathon of public budget hearings that made clear the county must either raise taxes or slash millions from virtually every department and non-profit agency.

Without a tax increase, libraries would close their doors more often. Firefighting and emergency services would not be expanded. County funding for Rape Crisis, the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center and Carroll County's job-training program for at-risk youths would be eliminated.

What's happening in Carroll County is an extreme example of the problems every metro jurisdiction faces as it plans next year's spending. Sluggish growth in property and income tax revenues have prompted cost-saving measures ranging from no pay raises to reorganizing benefits programs.

In Baltimore County, any new funding is being earmarked for schools and public safety. Other county agencies are being asked to trim spending by as much as 10 percent. In Anne Arundel County, employees can expect no raises, as County Executive John A. Gary tries to hold the line on spending.

That doesn't make it any easier for Carroll's no-new-taxes commissioners. Some even accuse them of using the cuts to panic people and raise support for a property tax increase, the first since 1989.

"I'm sure it looks that way to people who look for ploys as to why we do things," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a retired farmer who is serving his second term on the three-member board. "These cuts were staff proposals. It's very difficult to have to think about cutting money to some of these agencies."

But the commissioners must either trim $5 million from the county's spending plan for fiscal 1997, which begins July 1, or find additional money.

Carroll is spending about $54 million for the day-to-day operation of government services this year.

With fewer dollars, the commissioners are looking at eliminating 103 county and county-funded jobs at non-profit agencies, mostly through attrition.

These jobs include those held by planners, zoning and permits inspectors, clerical and library workers and counselors.

Carroll has never laid off employees.

Residents turned out in droves to support threatened programs and services. Firefighters arrived in a parade of fire engines, ladder trucks and emergency vehicles. Senior citizens showed up in matching T-shirts. Museum workers wore period garb. And everyone from high school students to business entrepreneurs urged the commissioners not to cut money for the libraries.

Despite widespread sentiment to raise taxes, the commissioners have been mum about any prospect of raising Carroll's $2.35 property tax rate, one of the lowest in metropolitan Baltimore.

"I was elected more or less on growth issues," said Commissioner Richard T. Yates, a retired U.S. Department of Defense inspector who is serving his first term. "But the message was very clear that people didn't want more taxes. I didn't vote for an increase in the piggyback tax. I doubt I'd vote for an increase in the property tax."

The board raised Carroll's piggyback tax from 50 percent to 58 percent last summer to raise money to build four new schools. That increase cost the average taxpayer about $120 a year.

"I don't envy the position the commissioners are in, especially after raising the piggyback tax last year," said Wayne Schuster, an Eldersburg resident who moved to the county less than two years ago. "My personal position is that the commissioners should accommodate as many of the services as possible, and if that means raising taxes to do it, I'm not opposed to it."

Among the hardest-hit agencies are the many service agencies that provide remedial education and job-training, transportation, shelter for the developmentally disabled and counseling for abuse and other victims.

"Up until now, there has been an excellent quality of life out here, because of the breadth and depth of services available," said Sandra L. Rappeport, director of the Carroll County District of Family and Children Services of Central Maryland, a non-profit group that runs the sexual abuse treatment center. The loss of county money would close the center.

"These cuts just cut the heart out of what has made this county a very wonderful place to live," Ms. Rappeport said. "This would be devastating. We would no longer be able to help children who are sexually abused."

Many argue that the county's budget problems stem from too much residential growth -- which doesn't generate enough revenue to cover public services, including roads, water and sewers, and schools -- and the lack of industrial development over the years.

"It's not this group of commissioners' fault for the problems we're in," said Nimrod Davis, a lifelong Carroll resident. "The problems go back four or five terms. It's been a combination of developers building too many new houses and the county not keeping up with the spending needs."

Although Mr. Davis, too, supports a tax increase, there remains some opposition.

"I think the majority of people don't want their taxes raised," said William D. Drumm Jr., president of the Carroll County Taxpayers Association.

"It's high time people realize that we're down to the point where we have to run this county like our home budgets. If we don't have the money, we cut back. I'd like a Cadillac in my driveway, too, but I have a 10-year-old Chevy."

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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