Tax rise proposal gets tepid reception

Panel says money is needed to pay for repairs to schools

January 15, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

A citizen panel's proposed recommendation to raise county taxes to pay a whopping $417 million bill for school repairs is getting a cold reception from some lawmakers, who say county residents will never buy it, especially when there's a budget surplus.

"No way. What is that saying, `A snowball's chance in hell'? What we need is for them to come up with something we haven't thought of before," said Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., Anne Arundel County Council chairman and a Democrat.

The 39-member Citizens' Committee on the Renovation and Maintenance of Public Schools included raising the piggyback tax -- the county's share of the state income tax -- and property taxes among its approximately 50 preliminary recommendations for renovating schools.

The backlog in school maintenance and repairs is $134 million, and another $283 million is needed to renovate 45 schools that are more than 30 years old, the panel found.

The committee was established last year by then-County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican,

Headed by Arthur Ebersberger of Severna Park and Walter Hall of Pasadena, the panel began reviewing and revising final recommendations Wednesday night during a meeting at Anne Arundel Community College. It plans to present its report to Democratic County Executive Janet S. Owens by the end of the week and to the state delegation on Feb. 5.

No priorities set

Although the panel has been meeting for about a year, it did not set priorities, specifically endorse tax increases or tackle politically tough issues such as school redistricting. Ebersberger characterized the report as a list of suggestions or options that the County Council, county executive, school board and schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham should consider.

Ebersberger was so concerned that county residents or politicians would get the wrong impression of the initial set of recommendations that he would not provide copies to members of the committee or reporters.

Raising taxes is not a popular idea among politicians, especially when the county has a $50 million budget surplus, Klosterman said.

Owens said during her campaign last year that she is opposed to raising the county's property tax cap. Last week, she asked the county's delegation to the General Assembly to bring home an unprecedented $50 million in state money for school repairs.

"She considers a tax hike a last-resort measure," said Owens spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter.

Raising property tax

The report also suggests another unlikely possibility: Going to the state legislature to raise the state property tax only in Anne Arundel County.

"We are in a two-year phase of reducing the state taxes," said Anne Arundel Democratic state Sen. Phillip C. Jimeno. "The governor has committed money to school construction and to reduce taxes so we have a balanced approach. So to go back to the beginning is not acceptable."

Another way to save or generate money, the report said, is to lease or sell unused or underused school buildings in neighborhoods where property values are high. Ebersberger said the committee did not discuss whether that would require redistricting to take students out of underused buildings such as Bates Middle School in Annapolis, which is well belowcapacity.

Redistricting not addressed

Klosterman said that while leasing empty space sounds like a good idea, he could not understand how the committee could not address redistricting.

"No one wants to touch that, including this committee," he said. "They just want to skirt the problem. I think that redistricting should have been a consideration in their report. It's more political for us than for them. What good is a committee if it can't address the sensitive issues?"

The proposed report also suggests that the County Council appoint a task force to oversee money raised for schools -- which would remove some authority from the county school board.

"They can recommend anything they want, but by law, if the money goes to the school system, then the school board decides how it should be spent," said school board President Carlesa Finney.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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