A bad tax cut gambit and what's in a name?


January 11, 1998|By NORRIS WEST

POLITICALLY, Howard County Councilman Dennis Schrader's proposal to eliminate a trash fee he voted for less than two years ago is brilliant. It is a crafty maneuver that is certain to electrify his campaign for county executive.

Not the fiscally prudent thing to do, mind you, but it's a move worthy of a chess grandmaster.

Not only does Mr. Schrader offer an appealing carrot to taxpaying voters, he dares rivals to vote against a populist measure.

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga will oppose Mr. Schrader for the Republican nomination for county executive, but he will oppose Mr. Schrader's trash fee resolution at his own peril. It's a no-win situation for him. If he supports a measure that the council adopts, his opponent still gets credit for easing the tax burden. Too bad he can't recuse himself.

Don't be surprise if he counters with a different tax-cut proposal.

The stakes are even higher for County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a candidate for governor. His chances of winning the Republican gubernatorial primary against tax hawk Ellen R. Sauerbrey could go from slim to none if he rejects the measure to abolish the fee he imposed. Republican voters in Maryland who are paying attention to him want to see how he deals with a $12 million surplus.

Mr. Schrader's proposal by no means comes as a surprise. It is no coincidence that county residents received tax cuts in 1974, 1982, 1986 and 1990 -- four of the last six election years. Giving an election-year break to taxpayers is a proven way to win votes.

The formula worked last year for Jim Gilmore, who became governor of Virginia on the strength of his proposal to eliminate that state's car tax. New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman won her first election with a tax cut pledge. And Mrs. Sauerbrey went from obscurity to a whisker of defeating Parris N. Glendening in 1994 with her plan to reduce state taxes dramatically.

A winning plan yes, but in Howard County's case, Mr. Schrader's proposal is not good government.

Like those of the state of Maryland and other counties, Howard's surplus resulted from a buoyant economy. Although property taxes were relatively flat, higher incomes and capital gains drove up tax receipts. The $12 million surplus is a welcome windfall that may or may not repeat itself.

Only seven years ago, the coin came up tails for Howard County and the rest of Maryland. All struggled with budget shortfalls that prompted painful cuts in programs and services. Howard learned its lesson from that episode. In 1992, it beefed up its "sunny day" fund and became the first county in the state to pass legislation requiring the government to spend surplus money only on capital expenditures such as construction projects and landfill remediation or other one-time expenses such as new computers or furniture.

The budget picture remained gloomy in 1996, when Mr. Ecker spent a considerable amount of political capital to push through his controversial $125 trash fee.

The council supported the fee 4-1, with Mr. Schrader voting for the fee. Only Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray opposed it.

The reason that Mr. Schrader says he has reversed direction on the trash fee ultimately may not matter to taxpayers as much as the fact that he did. But he suggests that the $12 million surplus shows that the fee, which generates about $8.4 million, no longer is needed.

Schools officials make a similar argument, saying the surplus shows the county can afford to increase their budget substantially, to the tune of more than $13 million.

County Budget Administrator Raymond Wacks acknowledges that Mr. Ecker "has more flexibility this year than he's had in the last several years," but cautions that "we have to be careful about making long-term economic decisions based on short-term gains."

"There is no guarantee that this will happen in the future," Mr. Wacks says.

But for Mr. Schrader, the future comes in the election months of September and November.

Name of distinction?

In another matter, we have to get one thing straight. The Columbia Association held a contest to name a health club under construction in River Hill, and the winning submission was -- the River Hill Club?

No offense to the winner, but were judges looking for the creative or the obvious? A community that once was daring enough to select such delightfully goofy street names as Empty Song Road, Perfect Hour and Learned Sage has come to this?

Dullness, however, is a minor infraction. Worse is the parochialism the name evokes.

When CA officials were trying to win community-wide support for the health club, they promised that it would belong to all Columbians. Their slide presentation included a map that showed how quickly east Columbia residents could get to their new club. Yet, they settled on a name that connotes the club belongs exclusively to River Hill.

Is that the message River Hill wants to convey to its counterparts?

What's next? Secession?

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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