Council OKs rise in taxes in 2000

Budget vote split over 2-cent increase in property levy

May 27, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Council Democrats got their 2 cents worth as the five-member body split amicably along partisan lines in approving a $685 million operating budget and tax increases for next fiscal year.

The higher property tax -- raising the county rate to $2.61 per $100 of assessed value -- will help funnel more money to county schools, which will get $22 million in new county funding, mainly to begin class-size reduction in first and second grades and to give teachers a 3 percent raise.

Freshman Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of the western county voted against the Democrats' 2-cent property tax increase, which they said shows the fundamental difference between the parties. They favored cuts in other departments in flush economic times. "There's got to be fat in there," Merdon said of the budget.

They took pains to emphasize points of agreement and praised the end result, while acknowledging that their plan for avoiding a tax increase would fail in the inevitable 3-2 partisan vote.

"I think the big winners of this budget are the students of Howard County," Merdon said after the 11 a.m. voting session.

"Class-size reduction was the No. 1 priority for all of us." Laurel-Savage Democrat Guy J. Guzzone said in agreement.

Merdon, Kittleman and the Democrats praised County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat who opposed the tax increase. "Here I agree with the county executive," Kittleman said before voting, as Robey watched from the audience. Kittleman had prepared a chart highlighting points of agreement.

"Good job. We're done. We have a good budget," Robey said of his first-year effort.

The spending plan takes effect July 1 and gives county departments an extra $48 million.

A $26 million surplus is going into one-time construction projects as part of the $98 million capital budget that will help pay for projects that include Ellicott Mills Middle School and additions and renovations at older schools and other county buildings. Among the renovations are the county central library and the government complex in Ellicott City.

Taxpayers face a more confusing situation. Property taxes will rise 5 cents per $100 of assessed value because of the 2-cent increase the council approved and the 3 cents Robey added to the county's separate fire property tax.

Combined with rising assessments, the tax increases will cost the owner of a $180,000 home $74 more a year in property taxes. Columbia residents pay an additional fee of 73 cents per $100 to the Columbia Association to maintain the planned town's open spaces and recreation facilities.

Yesterday's council session went largely as expected, with Chairman C. Vernon Gray and fellow Democrats Guzzone and Mary C. Lorsung criticizing the Republican budget plan, which would have cut 1 percent from all county departments to divert more money to schools without raising taxes. Robey provided $20 million in new money for schools, but denied a request for $4.8 million more.

In addition, the two Republicans proposed reallocating $1 million in education funds to class-reduction programs, saying at least that much has been left over in each of the past five years.

"Philosophically I've been opposed to across-the-board cuts because they're not fair or equitable. It's not something I would ever support," Gray said.

Lorsung agreed, saying it's the council's responsibility to cut selectively.

Guzzone said he painstakingly compiled a list of possible cuts as an alternative to a tax increase, but Robey convinced him the cuts were a bad idea.

Kittleman emphasized how "Chris and I really tried to bring all parties together," and they did join later -- in a celebratory picnic in Centennial Park after the votes. The fare was hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken and soft drinks provided by a caterer called "Putting on the Ritz."

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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