Annapolis pays in fights with county Biggest losers in battles will be city taxpayers

Ex-mayors raise questions

Tax credit reduction is latest dispute to take its toll

June 16, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Why can't they get along?

Anne Arundel County and Annapolis bicker like siblings over belongings, space and power.

They fight in the General Assembly, in courtrooms and behind closed doors. And, as is usually the case in family feuds, the little guy -- Annapolis -- takes it on the chin.

But at what price?

Last week, the city lost a six-week war over a property tax increase imposed by the county when a circuit judge threw out the city's suit to keep the increase from taking effect. The city may have lost, but the biggest losers in the end most certainly will be city taxpayers.

"We've lost everything that we've gained in the last decade in regards to the respect and clout we had as a separate government," said former Mayor Dennis M. Callahan, who has been watching the political bickering from the sidelines. "And the one thing that's really going to affect us most is the one felt in our pockets.

"The city is politically impotent," he said. "They've been asleep at the wheel for a long time now."

Such criticism might be viewed as harsh, but it is not unwarranted, given the way the city handled the dispute over how much credit Annapolis residents should receive for public services from the county, city Alderman Theresa M. DeGraff said.

City officials blundered at every step, she said.

There were the "he said, she said" arguments over negotiations with the county, the city council's secret vote to file a lawsuit and its lack of cooperation with county Councilman William C. Mulford III, who tried to get a third party to review the formula for the credit.

Then, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins refused to testify before the County Council to stop the increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The battle quickly deteriorated when each side accused the other of fabricating information and making misleading statements.

"Honey, no one's asleep because there's no one at the wheel," said DeGraff, a Ward 7 Republican, who has tried to distance herself from the fray. "I can understand why the city council looks so bad right now. There is no one voice speaking for us. Unlike the county, we were all speaking at once."

The conflicts between the city and the county are not new. In the 1980s, Callahan fought often with O. James Lighthizer, then the county executive, over annexation. In the late 1970s, Mayor John C. Apostol stormed out of a meeting with County Executive Robert A. Pascal, and the two governments did not communicate for several years after that.

Issues involving tobacco tax revenues and public transportation are simmering, but annexation and taxes have caused the most tension between the two jurisdictions. For example, the county recently adopted a resolution urging the city not to take more land, but city officials voted 7-2 to annex 11.3 acres on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula.

The conflicts might be explained by City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke's observation that "we are bound by geography" and by the differing political philosophies -- the city's liberal, Democratic council vs. the county's conservative, Republican council.

But the issues are not partisan, said Stephen R. McHenry, associate director of the Maryland Municipal League.

"When you have a shared property tax base and issues relating to growth management, you're bound to have conflict," he said. In the aftermath of the lawsuit, Alderman Carl O. Snowden met with county officials to iron out conflicts, and Hopkins pledged "the city's cooperation in a number of projects" with the county.

Both sides are hopeful of working together to solve the congestion problem along Forest Drive, where the city is planning to annex several acres.

City officials hope to put the feuds behind them, said Snowden, a Ward 5 Democrat. Scoring some points by reducing the city's property tax rate by 4 cents, the city council has been scrambling to smooth over ruffled county feathers and working to regain its status in the public eye. Some critics believe the damage has been done.

"I think the voters have become disenchanted with the entire council," said former Mayor Roger W. "Pip" Moyer. "There was never this kind of acrimony that takes place now. We dealt with the same issues, but we were never at each other's throats."

So what is it about this council? Is it a lack of communication between the city and county, as Moyer believes? Is it a lack of political know-how, as Callahan says? Or does the root of the problem lie within the council itself?

County Executive John G. Gary, who said the county usually has good working relations with the city, speculated that the recent conflicts might be related to next year's mayoral race and "election-year posturing."

Although aldermen deny there are internal conflicts, Monday's meeting spoke volumes when they argued bitterly over two similar versions of Historic District Commission bills, then accused each other of abusing power.

Former Mayor Richard L. Hillman, who was known during his term for his inability to disguise his frustration with quarreling council members, believes disorganization and fragmentation are the biggest obstacles.

"You could go to any city council meeting and you can see that they clearly don't get along," said Hillman, who deals with the council regularly as chairman of the city's planning commission.

"While I believe there is nothing they could do to win the tax dispute with the county I believe they have lost the ability to be collegial," he said. "In fact, they spend most of their time bickering, and they blame the mayor. I think, perhaps, they need to look in the mirror."

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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