Commissioner candidates bring variety of views Seven seeking a job as commissioner

October 25, 1998|By JAMES M. CORAM MARY GAIL HARE | JAMES M. CORAM MARY GAIL HARE,SUN STAFF

All seven candidates hoping to be elected one of Carroll's three county commissioners would like to cut the property tax rate, but none thinks it can be done -- at least not now.

They agree that preserving agricultural farmland is the county's top priority, but they differ slightly on how to achieve that goal.

They differ too about whether the county can absorb 1,000 new residential units a year and about whether it should raise impact fees on new home construction.

All have reservations about the planning commission's proposed Master Plan to guide the county's growth, and most think it was appropriate to table it until the new commissioners are elected.

Most think the commissioners have a right not to reappoint someone to boards and commissions if the person votes contrary to their wishes.

Of the seven candidates, only Robin Bartlett Frazier, a Manchester Republican, has made it her goal to cut property taxes. But she does not foresee a decrease for at least a year.

"I'm interested in cutting property taxes, but I can't say that we can do that until I see the budget," Frazier said. "It would probably not happen for a year to 18 months. But it is my goal to cut property taxes.

"I think we could prioritize the infrastructure needs, cut elsewhere and rearrange time frames. We would still get things done, but it might take a little longer," Frazier said.

Incumbent Donald I. Dell, a Westminster Republican who voted in 1996 to raise the property tax rate 27 cents, to $2.62 per $100 of assessed value, said the county cannot cut taxes if the state continues to withhold money previously shared with the county.

"The only way to cut property taxes is if the state restored the funds it took away from us that made us increase property taxes in the first place," Dell said.

Democrat Perry L. Jones Jr., mayor of Union Bridge, said, "Everybody would like to cut property taxes," but it is unlikely to happen unless the county is able to build its industrial tax base to about 15 percent of revenues. That base is now less than 12 percent, the lowest in the region.

Julia Walsh Gouge, a Hampstead Republican and former two-term commissioner, agrees, saying she does not foresee a tax decrease without a corresponding increase in the county's industrial and commercial base.

"It is irresponsible to say you will lower the tax rate unless you are going to give up other programs," Gouge said. "We have to continue to fund economic development, looking at the worldwide market. We have to say, 'County government wants your business.' No one will know we are here unless we advertise."

Westminster Democrat Roger Larry Mann said he hopes the county can find a way to reduce what he says are "the highest taxes in the Baltimore area" but doubts that could be done without "citizen-based budgeting" -- a program he says would "match our needs with the citizens' willingness to pay for them."

Independent candidate Carolyn Fairbank of Eldersburg is another who thinks a tax break is unlikely. "I'd love to lower taxes; who wouldn't?" she said. "But the best thing to do now is hold the line."

Maxine C. Wooleyhand, a Sykesville Democrat, said she would meet with all county department heads to try to streamline services with the aim of reducing taxes.

One of the places the candidates want to spend the county's money is in farmland preservation.

"I believe that the vast majority of county residents want some kind of agricultural preservation," Frazier said. "It should be a priority. I think we should get matching funds from the state and from individual trusts -- people who want to preserve farmland and are willing to put their money where their mouth is."

Mann holds a similar opinion. "We are basically preserving 2,000 [acres] a year at a cost of about $4 million," he said. "It's a great program, but I have a problem with the implementation of a transfer tax to fund it."

The county should get more preservation money from two statewide programs -- Rural Legacy and the Maryland Environmental Trust, Mann said. He also favors beginning a program like one in Lancaster County, Pa., "in which various organizations are helping raise funds for agricultural preservation. We must give some serious thought to that."

Dell and Gouge, both longtime county residents, favor bond sales to buy easements that would keep farms out of development.

"I would rather see the county sell bonds for agricultural preservation than for road repairs," Dell said. "That [practice] should be reversed."

Dell estimates it would cost the county between $7 million and $7.5 million to buy easements on 3,626 acres from farmers who are "ready to sell," and another $30 million to $35 million to buy easements on 17,000 acres in preservation districts.

Properties must be in a preservation district before the county can purchase easements to keep the properties out of development.

4 Gouge favors funding preservation over 20 years.

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