'No-tax' commissioners bow to the inevitable


April 21, 1996|By Mike Burns

POLITICIANS ARE typically eager to claim credit, but a tax increase is something they rarely want to list among their accomplishments.

Particularly a big increase.

Particularly in Carroll County.

That's why it has been surprising to see that the three county commissioners have all, each in his own way, advanced the idea of raising the property tax rate, now set at $2.35 per $100 of assessed valuation. Especially since all were elected in 1994 as conservative Republicans dedicated to "no new taxes" and to slashing waste from budgets.

Last week, after much shadow dancing, two of the three put up a show-and-tell slide presentation to ask for a 27-cent increase.

Tar and feathers

Donald I. Dell, the senior commissioner, previously laid bashful claim to suggesting the biggest increase, 25 cents, for which he says he fully expects to be tarred and feathered (Does anyone remember how to do this anymore?) by the electorate. Or at least have his head chopped off. "I was the one who initiated" the tax increase, he confessed.

W. Benjamin Brown forecast a 25-cent tax rate rise in a talk with business people last month. That increase would make up the TC projected $5 million deficit for fiscal year 1997 (which begins July 1) and create a $3 million surplus for school construction. But Mr. Brown later said he was only "speculating," not initiating. "I'm not going to stand on that limb with [Mr. Dell] until we get there," he insisted. Now it sounds like he finally got out even farther than he feared.

Richard T. Yates, who led the field in the 1994 election, is on record as opposing a tax increase. "I didn't get elected to raise taxes," he declared. So strongly does he hew to that principle that he walked out on his two colleagues when they even raised the topic of raising taxes.

And yet it was this same Commissioner Yates who proposed a 15-cent rate increase in writing three weeks ago. That's what it would take to fully fund the county budget, he responded to constituents who had written the commissioners protesting possible reductions in the public library's operating budget. "If they want everything fully funded, then I want them to see how it's going to hit them in the pocketbook," he explained.

Thus spake the Three Wise Men. It seems clear that they are committed to a property tax increase that will raise Carroll from among the lowest county rates in the Baltimore metro region to one of middle ranking.

As of last year, Carroll had the same $2.35 tax rate as Anne Arundel County and was 9 cents higher than Frederick County. Throwing out Baltimore City's extraordinary rate ($5.85), the highest county tax rate was Baltimore County with $2.86, followed by Harford County with $2.73.

These property tax rates are not altogether comparable, because the level of provided county services varies considerably, from trash collection to paid firefighters to other amenities.

Carroll County's budget for next year will have to find additional sources of income. Despite their tough talk about an austerity budget, the commissioners understand that. It's clear to the various business groups and the homebuilders and the taxpayers' unions. Even to county Democrats who delight in criticizing the GOP's "tax and spend" commissioners.

There's room to make cuts, if that's what citizens want. Other counties have cut library hours, for example, in an effort to hold down the tax rate.

But it's proven an unpopular move, one that has been reversed in succeeding years. Given Carroll's high demand for libraries -- and the 2,000 people who wrote to protest proposed library cutbacks -- that's not going to find much favor.

With the strong farming constituency in Carroll, shrinking county contributions to 4-H clubs, Soil Conservation and Cooperative Extension Service would be difficult. And there are similar supporters of the county transit system, senior citizens' services, volunteer fire and emergency medical units and so on.

Recreation and Parks might take a cut, relying on more volunteer helpers and higher fee-based activities, but that alone is not going to balance the budget. Suggest slicing the Victim/Witness Assistance unit of the state's attorney's office and he threatens to sue the county.

Why the rate must rise

The main reason that the property tax rate will have to rise, just as the piggyback income tax rate was increased last year, is that Carroll's residential growth is booming while industrial and commercial-support development is nearly invisible; in fact that tax base has shrunk since 1990. So Carroll residents have to pay more for their services than those in counties with larger business tax bases.

That's no mystery.

And it's why Commissioner Dell can say of the two-bit tax rate hike: "It's something a politician wouldn't ordinarily take credit for, but in my mind I can justify that increase."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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