County taxes unlikely to change Reluctance to make cuts tied to fiscal uncertainties

April 26, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Taxes will not be going up in Baltimore County this year, but they're not likely to go down either.

With minimal spending increases in the $1.36 billion budget request of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and the uncertainty over the federal budget battle, County Council members say they are not inclined to reduce the property tax rate.

Any savings they find probably will be consigned to surplus -- such as the $7 million cut last year from the Ruppersberger administration's first budget -- or spent on infrastructure repairs or bolstering the county's Community Conservation Program, most members say.

"I think we'll salt it away," Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said about the proceeds of any possible budget cuts. His pun recalled last winter's record cold and snowfall, and the cleanups that claimed several million dollars of the budget-cut savings. Road salt cost more than $2 million.

"The needs are too great," said Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "In my mind, [a tax cut] is not on the table."

Mr. Ruppersberger is hoping the council won't make major cuts in his budget proposal. "If there are any more cuts, it will hurt services," the executive said, calling his spending plan "one of the most conservative budgets we've had."

Even Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat who plays his cards close to his vest, described as "prudent" the decision last year to save $7 million in cuts to use as surplus, instead of cutting the tax rate. Each penny reduction of the property tax rate costs the county about $1.6 million.

But Mr. Kamenetz would not say what should be done with money saved through cuts in the executive's budget plan this year.

The county has not raised its property tax rate since July 1, 1988, although different councils have cut a total of 4 cents. The last reduction was a one-penny slice amid election-year controversy in 1994, making the current rate $2.855 per $100 of assessed value. Mr. Gardina had ridiculed the 1994 tax cut, saying the $4 in savings for the average county homeowner would be barely enough to buy two fast-food cheeseburgers.

While the county has avoided raising the property tax rate in recent years, it increased the piggyback income tax rate in 1992 from 50 percent to 55 percent to replace money lost through state budget cuts. The local piggyback tax rate set by Baltimore City and the 23 counties is a percentage of the state income tax -- ranging from 30 percent in Worcester County to the maximum of 60 percent in seven jurisdictions.

The budget proposed for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is very different from last year's. To keep the tax rate steady while spending $27 million more on schools and police -- including providing for 235 new teachers, a $4.3 million teachers' pay restructuring and $2.5 million for police pay raises -- Mr. Ruppersberger had to cut from other county departments.

The prospects for additional cuts by the council are slimmer this year, chiefly because of a tighter education budget. The council trimmed $4.4 million from schools last year, but this year a $330,000 cut would mean the loss of $4 million in state education aid because of the state maintenance-of-effort law requiring the 24 subdivisions to spend at least as much per pupil on schools as they spent the previous year.

"I just don't think you're going to have the cuts to [lower taxes]," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "A penny [tax cut] is too insignificant," he added, worrying that a penny cut this year might have to be restored next year if this week's federal budget agreement or next year's budget struggle brings more federal cuts.

Those potential losses also worry Catonsville Democrat Stephen G. Sam Moxley. "I'm extremely leery [of cutting taxes] in light of" disputes over the federal budget, he said.

Towson Republican Douglas B. Riley agreed there is precious little left to cut this year, but said, "If I had my druthers, I'd like to begin lowering the piggyback income tax."

Only Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat, expressed any interest in a property tax cut, but he warned that cutting pennies one year only to replace them the next won't help or satisfy anyone.

"We have to look at the long term," he said, adding that he would love to cut the tax rate. "It would be very uplifting."

The council has until June 1 to make cuts and adopt a budget.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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