Rating the tax rates Suburban competition: Government service costs affected by other levies, charges.

August 01, 1996

AS SHORTHAND for the cost of government, the property tax rate is too often used to compare suburban counties. A lower property rate equals lower county taxes, the thinking goes.

But the property tax rate doesn't tell the whole story about taxpayer costs of services, as a recent article by The Sun's Larry Carson points out. Other county taxes and fees for basic services can affect such comparisons.

So can local property taxes if one lives within a municipality as well as in a county: Annapolis residents pay an extra 68 cents per $100 on their county property bill; Columbia residents pay 73 cents; Westminster residents, 83 cents more.

The comparison of government services costs (for average household income and average home price) in the Baltimore region showed Carroll County and Howard County at the top of the list of suburban jurisdictions.

But all five suburban counties were within $100 of each other in the survey, none holding clear title to suburban tax haven. (Baltimore City government costs, as expected, were 90 percent higher than the counties' average of about $1,400.)

Property taxes account for the largest portion of local revenue, but other taxes are growing. Howard County has a fire protection levy, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have telephone taxes, all but Baltimore County have additional residential trash collection charges.

Most significantly, Carroll and Baltimore counties have raised their piggyback income tax rates beyond the standard 50 percent, to 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Given the symbolic sanctity of a stable or declining property tax rate, piggyback income-tax rates in other metro counties may also be headed up.

How counties spend their revenues also affects tax rate levels. Baltimore County's public safety budget is $160 million with a county police force. Carroll spends $14 million, including a resident State Trooper force. But Carroll spends about three times as much as Baltimore County per taxpayer on parks.

Tax bills do affect migration. Pennsylvania towns or Eastern Shore communities are attractive to some Baltimore area workers for that reason. But small tax differences among the suburban counties seem to be less important factors in local population movement.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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