Al Hopkins tries a fight he can't possibly win


June 02, 1996|By Brian Sullam

SOMEONE PLEASE get Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins a new copy of the Anne Arundel County Charter. Judging from his actions last week, Mr. Hopkins' copy must be missing a few pages.

The mayor did not bother attending the County Council meeting on the city's tax differential. In a letter to council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, Mr. Hopkins said it would have been a wasted trip.

According to his reading of the charter, the seven members of the council are powerless to change the county executive's proposed tax rate for Annapolis.

In case he hasn't seen it by now, someone should show Mr. Hopkins the page that says the council sets the tax rate. The copies the rest of us have make it clear that once the council decides the size of next year's budget, it will determine the appropriate property tax rate to finance the spending.

But even if Mr. Hopkins had made a cogent argument against County Executive John Gary's proposed 8-cent hike in the rate Annapolitans pay, it isn't clear that the council would have agreed. Setting tax rates is a political decision. Elected officials have to reflect the will of their constituents when they set the tax rate, which generates the lion's share of county government revenue. That principle of giving the branch of government closest to the people the responsibility to set the taxes was established when the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution.

The practice is followed at all levels of American government, from Congress to the smallest town council. The executive may propose the rate, but the ultimate responsibility for putting it into effect rests with the legislative branch.

Mayor's civics lesson

Poor Mr. Hopkins. Even if his charter didn't include the appropriate section, he should have remembered it from high school civics class.

Had he, Mr. Hopkins would have shown up in his Sunday best to make the city's case before the council. Instead, he plans to let the courts decide the issue.

But Annapolis has some formidable hurdles to clear toward that end. While filing a lawsuit of this nature is relatively easy -- draw up some papers and pay the nominal filing cost -- getting a court to hear the case will be difficult.

No judge wants to substitute his judgment for the County Council's. The Anne Arundel Charter and the Maryland Constitution clearly leave the job of setting the tax rate to the legislative branch, not the judiciary.

Even if a judge decides to hear the case, the review is likely to be limited to the question of whether the formula used to set the county tax rate for Annapolis is equitable and conforms with the appropriate law and legal precedents. The court will probably steer clear of determining the precise components of the formula.

As an example, county and city budget officials differ on how the county should allocate the county's investment income. No judge will decide that. Neither will a judge determine the precise amount Annapolis residents should pay as their share of operating the county detention center. Those are political issues that have to be hashed out by elected officials.

The limited scope of any judicial review probably is not going to produce the results that the Annapolis city government seeks -- a rate of $1.29 per $100 of assessed value, which is the rate the city has this year.

After all the legal motions have been filed and heard, it's almost a sure bet that the court will kick the whole issue back to the County Council.

Annapolis may pay more

In fact, if its trip to the courts heads back to the council, the Annapolis city government may not only have to pay its own lawyers, but it may end up paying for the county's as well. County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe said he is prepared to press the issue should the county government prevail.

The entire exercise of trying to find another forum to set the rate has been doomed from the start.

Since Mr. Gary announced the city's increase of 8 cents, the city government has been shopping around for a third party to set it. County officials rejected the city's offer to send the question to an independent arbitrator.

No one in county government is about to relinquish his or her tax-setting authority to an unelected arbitrator. Not only are they reluctant to give up that power, it would be a gross dereliction of their responsibility. After all the smoke clears, the County Council will set Annapolis' county tax, just as it has in the past.

The individual council members will carefully weigh the political consequences of their decision, and the likelihood is that they will vote for the proposed rate. Since the 35,000 Annapolis residents don't have enough political clout to bludgeon a majority of the council into voting them a lower county tax rate, they have to persuade them. Failing to show up last week made that task pretty close to impossible.

Maybe next year, Mr. Hopkins will have a complete copy of the county charter and will make the necessary effort.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.