Property tax increase is proposed Commissioners seek 11 percent rise in rate to fight budget gap

Plan avoids deep cuts

Road improvements, farmland protection, firefighting covered

April 19, 1996|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners, struggling to meet the demands of burgeoning growth, yesterday unveiled a $161 million budget that would raise the property tax by 27 cents and provide money for road improvements, fire services and the preservation of Carroll's threatened farmland.

"This is truly a look at the future," said Steven Powell, director of the county's Management and Budget Department. "It's a budget that will address many of these issues and put us on a good stead as we go forward."

Raising the property tax rate from $2.35 to $2.62 per $100 of assessed value, an 11 percent increase, would provide the county with an additional $9 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The proposed tax increase would cost the average Carroll homeowner $162 a year, officials said.

"We're not doing anything that hasn't been done in Carroll County before," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, noting the property tax was as high as $2.65 in the early 1970s. "As much as I despise taxes, if we raise funds now, we slow down borrowing and that means less taxes in the future."

Much of the additional revenue would be used to offset a projected $5 million shortfall attributed to sluggish property and income tax growth. The rest of the money would be used for road and bridge improvements, agricultural preservation and volunteer firefighter operations.

Without the tax increase, the county would be forced to cut money for day-to-day government services, nonprofit agencies that serve the economically and developmentally disadvantaged and the library system.

Those prospects prompted hundreds of residents, firefighters, library patrons and others to attend two weeks of budget reviews last month, protesting cuts to the programs. Many urged the commissioners to raise taxes.

"We can't have goals in Carroll County if we're not prepared to underline them with policies and financing," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who, along with Mr. Dell, supports a tax increase. "To reach a point in the budget where we don't have money to pursue those goals undermines those programs."

The proposed spending plan is about 4 percent more than the current budget. The school system would receive about $78 million, about 3.7 percent more than this fiscal year. Debt service accounts for about $12 million.

The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget May 9 at Westminster High School before taking final action.

Despite apparent widespread support for the commissioners to fund programs, Commissioner Richard T. Yates said yesterday he remains opposed to a tax increase.

"I'm against it as of right now. Part of my being elected was because I didn't want to raise taxes," said Mr. Yates, who last summer voted against an increase in the county's piggyback tax from 50 percent to 58 percent. That measure passed and raised money for four new schools.

For the most part, the revised spending plan restores much of the money initially proposed to be cut from citizens services programs, recreation and parks, museums and the libraries.

The infusion of new cash would allow the county to earmark an additional $2.5 million to Carroll's agricultural preservation program. With state money, the program's budget would be about $4 million next fiscal year, budget officials said.

Carroll needs to preserve about 100,000 acres of tillable farmland to keep agriculture a viable industry in the fast-growing county, Mr. Powell said. To date, the county has preserved about 22,000 acres.

Budget officials said the tax increase would mean an additional $375,000 for Carroll's volunteer fire companies, bringing the county closer to a longtime commitment to pay 90 percent of their operations. The county would fund about 80 percent of their operating expenses next year.

An additional $670,000 would be earmarked for roads and bridges next year in the county's capital improvements plan.

The county also would increase its Economic Development Trust Fund from $750,000 to $1 million next year.

County officials are bolstering efforts to lure more business and industry to the county to offset the demands of residential development.

Many have argued 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. The proposed spending plan, however, would not mean raises for county employees, Mr. Powell said.

And about 25 county and county-funded jobs would be eliminated because of decreases in spending in general government services, citizens services, recreation and conservation programs.

Without a tax increase, the county is looking at eliminating 103 jobs, including 30 positions in Carroll's library system, which includes administrative offices and five branches, officials said.

Robert Sapora, library board president, yesterday commended the commissioners for having the political courage to propose raising taxes.

"This has been a very difficult time for families and institutions," // Mr. Sapora said. "I appreciate how the commissioners paid attention to our concerns and listened to our questions."

Under the proposed budget, the library system would face a $100,000, or 2.2 percent, cut in funding -- a far cry from the $644,525 the county had initially proposed trimming to meet the budget shortfall.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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