Taxing dilemma in Baltimore region Budget crunch: Tax increases underscore strains on city and suburb alike.

April 21, 1996

BALTIMORE CITY and Carroll County are separated by a dozen miles geographically and by far greater distance politically. But they now find common ground, in the most unlikely of places -- the need to raise taxes.

The current tax proposals from Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Carroll County commissioners are the most dramatic illustration of pressures on government finances. This trend echoes throughout the region: Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger incurs heat for offering police officers raises but not firefighters; he says the times demand a judicious approach. In Howard County, Executive Charles I. Ecker seeks to charge for trash pick-up -- by the pound. Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary raised taxes a year ago, before he could even get his new chair warm.

"It continues to surprise me that local officials have the chutzpah to tackle taxes," says David Bliden of the Maryland Association of Counties. "It shows . . . the realities."

In Baltimore City and Carroll County, the annual budget dramas for years followed predictable scripts. In the city, home of the state's highest property tax, the mayor shaved a few cents off the rate and the council, eager to curry favor with voters, trimmed a few more pennies. Meanwhile in Carroll, home of the region's lowest rate, the exceedingly conservative commissioners would rather have walked a cow field in new shoes than raise taxes -- until recently.

Now things are different. Property assessments -- so crucial to local government finances -- have been flat. Personal income isn't rising much, either. Federal aid is shrinking.

Last year, Carroll commissioners raised their own income tax rate, but it proved insufficient. So they are now eyeing a XTC whopping 27-cent increase in the property tax rate. Without it, libraries, culture and recreation will get slashed -- the same areas threatened in the city. Public outcry against these reductions has been so intense the commissioners feel compelled to find new tax revenue to support these services.

Mayor Schmoke doesn't want to make deep cuts in popular programs, either. So he is willing to incur the wrath of some council members and taxpayer advocates by upping the piggyback income tax 10 percent. From an equity standpoint, this is far better than raising the property tax, which imposes an extra burden on elderly homeowners with fixed incomes.

Voters, especially now, don't want to hear about tax increases. But their leaders are being straight: The perennial pools of revenue have dried up and a generation of massive social and population changes in and around Baltimore have created needs as great as ever.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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