Some suburbs losing allure as tax havens Carroll Countians picking up tab for growth and progress

Baltimore Co. sees opportunity

Levy boosts felt by all along with differences in paying for services

July 29, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For years Carroll County was the Baltimore area's low-tax haven, a suburban refuge for people who didn't mind fewer government services.

But big changes have transformed Carroll -- and the entire region's fiscal landscape.

After a jump in Carroll's piggyback income tax last year and a property tax increase this year, that county now has the suburbs' highest government service costs for an average taxpayer: $1,434 a year, according to a Sun survey. Following Carroll, in order, are Howard, $1,404; Harford, $1,397; Baltimore County, $1,390; and Anne Arundel, $1,335. Baltimore City's bill, by comparison, is $2,679.

The survey illustrates the financial pressures being felt in outer suburbs, where rapid growth has fueled a demand for more schools, roads and other services.

To meet residents' demands, counties such as Carroll have boosted taxes. That and added expenses such as trash collection fees actually make Carroll more costly for the average taxpayer than a more urbanized suburb such as Baltimore County.

The trend has cheered some officials, who hope that it will affect growth trends and make older communities more appealing. "We can market Baltimore County," said county executive and self-described cheerleader C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

Meanwhile, Carroll County commissioner and low-tax proponent Richard T. Yates laments the decision to boost the local property tax rate from $2.35 to $2.62 per $100 of assessed value. He says, "I used to joke that people came out here because of $2.35, not 795 [the Northwest Expressway]. The quality of life is diminishing."

The trend has been masked because comparisons among localities usually are based on property tax rates. But other levies can make a big difference.

Howard, for example, recently imposed a $125 annual trash fee and charges a fee for fire services. In Carroll and Harford, meanwhile, most residents must hire trash collectors -- a service covered by taxes in the city and Baltimore County.

Kenneth F. Easter, who moved near Bel Air 12 years ago from an Essex rowhouse, knows that expenses such as hiring a trash hauler were not required in Baltimore County. But that didn't keep him from moving.

"I moved just to get out of the congestion of Essex," the retired Baltimore County police officer said, adding that his house might have cost $15,000 more if it had been in that county.

"But guess what -- everybody else had the same idea," he added. "Come up here at noon on a Saturday and try to drive through Bel Air. It's, like, new houses everywhere."

Local government service costs listed in the survey cover major levies, including the property tax and extra piggyback income tax -- the amount above the standard 50 percent levy -- as well as other, smaller levies such as Howard County's fire protection fee and telephone taxes in three localities.

The survey compared property tax rates on a $113,000 house, the average for the Baltimore area, according to the Maryland Office of Assessments and Taxation.

A locality's extra piggyback income tax was added, by computing the tax on a $42,000 income -- the average tax return, according to the state comptroller's office.

A similar process was used to apply charges for other services. For example, Howard County charges most residents an annual fire protection fee that equals 24 cents on the local property tax rate.

Of course, a resident's tax payments will vary from the survey totals, depending on home values and income.

Howard County's $125 trash fee, for example, would represent a smaller proportion of total taxes paid by the owner of a home that is more expensive than the area average.

But, even using the $150,000 average sale price of homes in the metro area, calculated by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, the results are virtually the same. Carroll and Howard counties would top the survey.

Water and sewer costs were not included in the survey, because they vary widely, even within a locality.

The size of the fee depends on whether a property is served by city utilities, or by private well and septic systems, and such factors as road frontage.

Baltimore, with a $5.85 property tax rate and 12 percent telephone tax, was by far the most expensive locality.

George A. Nilson, president of the Baltimore Taxpayers' Coalition, said the answer could be some type of single tax rate for the entire state, though he conceded that's not politically feasible now.

Baltimore's "got to compete on other terms," he said, and "hope the tax disparity is not so great that it knocks the city out of the block."

Meanwhile, among the counties, the combined charge for government services varied by $99 -- or about 7 percent -- from the lowest to the highest.

That difference would be much greater in areas such as Columbia and Annapolis, where residents pay extra taxes.

In Howard County, for example, Columbia residents pay an extra 73 cents per $100 of assessed value; in Anne Arundel County, Annapolis residents pay 68 cents more per $100 than other county residents.

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