Trash tax suddenly an election issue Schrader proposes repeal of $125 fee paid by homeowners

'Election-year politics'

Feaga dismisses GOP opponent's idea

Ecker noncommittal

January 06, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The 1998 race for Howard County executive quickened yesterday as Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a GOP candidate, proposed tossing the county's $125 trash tax in the garbage.

Schrader says the county's $12 million surplus prompted his proposal. The trash tax -- imposed in 1996 to pay for the skyrocketing cost of trash collection and disposal -- generates about $8.4 million a year.

Even if Schrader's proposal fails -- support was tepid yesterday -- it gives him a populist issue to distinguish him from GOP rival Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a fiscal conservative now in the uneasy position of opposing an election-year tax cut of about 6 percent.

"We should go back and review this trash fee now that the economic environment is better," said Schrader, who added he was "reluctant" to approve it in the first place.

Election year tax cuts are a tradition in Howard and a popular tactic in elections throughout the country. Virginia's Jim Gilmore won the governorship in November by promising to eliminate that state's car tax.

In Howard, tax cuts came every election year from 1974 to 1990. County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, broke with tradition by holding the tax rate flat in 1994.

"Tax cuts are always a good issue, especially now that the county is reporting a surplus," said Columbia pollster Brad Coker, a Schrader adviser.

Schrader voted to support the trash tax in 1996, when Ecker proposed it as a way to pay for growing garbage and recycling costs. The vote for the tax was 4-1, with only Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, opposing it.

"I think [Schrader] should have been more thoughtful about it at the time it was enacted," Gray said yesterday.

Since July 1996, all Howard homeowners have paid the $125 trash tax as part of their property tax bills. It earned the county $8.3 million in 1996 and $8.4 million last year. The third billing would come in July unless Schrader's proposal succeeds.

Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have trash fees. Neither Baltimore nor Baltimore County do.

Unlike property taxes, Howard's trash tax is not deductible on federal income taxes and is not paid by owners of business properties. It is also regressive; the tax is the same for a million-dollar west county mansion or an Elkridge townhouse.

The tax cut would be worth about 6 percent to the owner of a $200,000 home, says Raymond Wacks, the county budget chief. For a less expensive home, eliminating the trash tax means a larger tax cut. For a more expensive home, the percentage of the tax cut is smaller.

No other county official embraced Schrader's proposal yesterday.

Feaga dismissed the idea as nothing more than a political gesture.

"I'm convinced that if we lowered that [trash tax], we'd have to turn right around next year and put it back in," Feaga said. "I'm not willing to do that for election-year politics."

The county has a $12 million surplus -- a result of surging income tax receipts as the local economy hums -- but Howard also has the highest per-capita debt in Maryland. Feaga says most of the surplus should be used to retire debt.

Ecker, who first proposed the trash tax, was cool to Schrader's idea yesterday, but said he would consider it when preparing the proposed budget for the 12 months beginning in July.

Schrader plans to submit a resolution requesting repeal of the trash tax. Resolutions have no legal authority, so Ecker would be free to ignore Schrader's, though that might lead to a showdown during budget hearings in May.

Political observers say the issue could be troublesome for Ecker, who is running a campaign of his own for governor.

The trash tax was his only tax increase since 1991, but opposing its repeal could make him vulnerable to the tax-cut rhetoric of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 Republican gubernatorial nominee and the front-runner for the nomination this year.

Yesterday, Ecker dismissed the suggestion that Schrader's proposal could damage him.

"I'm worried about keeping the county on a predictable, consistent course," Ecker said. "I don't want the tax rate to go up and down like a yo-yo. So it doesn't put me in a tough spot at all."

Schrader says he plans to submit his proposal to the County Council next month, meaning a vote could come as soon as March.

News of the proposal caught the other four council members off guard yesterday.

GOP Councilman Darrel E. Drown, a key supporter of Feaga's county executive campaign, took no position on Schrader's proposed tax cut yesterday.

But Drown said he was surprised that Schrader gave no advance warning to Ecker and other local GOP officials, who learned of it at a breakfast meeting. Schrader announced his proposal in faxes to local newspapers shortly after.

"Dennis is a shrewd, sharp operator, so that's his decision," said Drown. "Normally, that's not his modus operandi. But again, this is the political season."

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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