Little outcry to cut taxes

Balto. County leaders discuss ways to spend $148.4 million surplus

Schools lead agenda

Majority of council seeks to put money in community projects

January 24, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In Annapolis, the nearly $1 billion budget surplus has spurred calls by some state lawmakers for income tax cuts. But in Baltimore County, with a $148.4 million surplus, no such cries are being heard.

The reason is simple. Most county leaders believe that, at least for now, extra money should be plowed into school improvements and projects they say were neglected during leaner times.

"My philosophy is to take this surplus and put the money back into the schools and infrastructure. This is an investment in the future," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "I will not fall into the trap of trying to look good politically by saying I will cut taxes."

Ruppersberger doesn't have the only say, however. The budget he drafts in the spring must be approved by the County Council, which could make trims and lower tax rates.

While a majority of the council says it would like to reduce taxes during its four-year term, which ends in 2002, only one councilman would commit to making the issue a priority this year.

"If the state deems it prudent to roll back taxes, I cannot think of any reason why the county shouldn't follow," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, an Owings Mills-North County Republican.

"We know that as the night follows the day, the economy changes. When government gets too accustomed to spending at a high level, it has great difficulty in paring down quickly."

Lukewarm response

McIntire is one of two council Republicans, the party that historically advocates smaller government. The other, Wayne M. Skinner of Towson, said his call for tax cuts during the 1998 campaign got a lukewarm response from voters.

Skinner said he believes the surplus would be better spent on neighborhood improvements.

"If we don't fix up the older neighborhoods now, they won't have a future," Skinner said.

The prospects for a county tax cut are further dimmed by the long wish list Ruppersberger sent to the General Assembly, said county Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

"You can't make a local income tax cut and then go down there [to Annapolis] asking for $30 million for capital projects," Gardina said.

Little demand heard

County politicians say they hear little demand for smaller tax bills as they visit community groups, field telephone calls from constituents and answer letters.

"As I go from meeting to meeting, they are all talking about, `What about our roads? What about our sidewalks? What about my granddaughter's school?' " said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

It's a far cry from 1992 when the state was in the midst of a recession. More than 1,000 angry residents packed a high school auditorium for a budget hearing as political leaders debated whether to raise taxes or slash police and fire services.

The decision: increase the county's piggyback income tax rate from 50 percent to 55 percent. At the same time, however, politicians said money should be returned to county residents when the fiscal picture brightened.

`Return their trust'

"Our commitment to fiscal responsibility demands that we continue to assess the size of our government and that we dedicate ourselves to reduce the taxes we have raised, not perpetuate such increases," wrote then-council Chairman William A. Howard IV in a 19-page budget message.

"I believe that our citizens have put their trust in us. We must strive to return their trust by reducing their tax burden whenever and wherever possible. We hereby commit to that goal," he said.

Among those voting to approve the 1992-1993 budget was Ruppersberger, then a 3rd District councilman.

Exactly what Ruppersberger said about tax cuts before that vote might never be known. The audiotape of the May 28, 1992, council meeting is missing from the council offices, a fact first noticed by Ruppersberger's 1998 election opponent, former state Del. John J. Bishop.

Bishop ran on a tax-cut platform and wanted to use the tape in his campaign.

Ruppersberger said he probably didn't say much at the meeting because he was not chairman. But others remember differently.

"Dutch has denied he made the promise. He absolutely did," said Berchie Lee Manley, a former councilwoman. "It was an agreement among all of us that we would roll [taxes] back when times were better."

But Ruppersberger points to his victory over Bishop in 1998 as validation of his reinvestment philosophy. The county executive was returned to office with 71 percent of the vote, winning every election precinct.

"We think the message from citizens is pretty clear," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Ruppersberger.

`Disheartening'

In the absence of public outcry, cutting taxes would be the right thing to do, said John F. Gaburick, an accountant who is a member of the county Spending Affordability Committee, a group that recommends budget limits based on projected income growth. "I find it rather disheartening that there is no one picking up the ball, Republicans and Democrats alike," he said.

If tax cuts rise to the top of the political agenda, chances are lawmakers will disagree on how to implement them. Gardina and Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Perry Hall Democrat, would reduce property tax rates rather than cut the piggyback tax. They say a property tax reduction would be more helpful to homeowners on fixed incomes.

"It's probably going to mean a lot more to those people affected," Bartenfelder said.

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