High costs in luring industry to Carroll


April 08, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

THERE'S a triple dose of good news in the latest report on Carroll's economic development.

The industrial tax base is rising to new heights, expected to top last year's $53 million level when the fiscal year ends in another three months.

And that industrial sector is rising as a percentage of Carroll's tax base, as well. By July 1, it should climb to about 13 percent, economic development director Jack Lyburn predicts. That's where it was in 1993, before residential growth took off like a rocket.

That percentage may not seem like much -- it's still near the bottom among Maryland jurisdictions -- but it is an encouraging improvement for this county. The higher the industrial/commercial tax base, the less burden on residential taxpayers.

One of the reasons for the recent increase in the industrial sector percentage, from a little over 12 percent, is that the pace of residential development is slowing down.

As Commissioner Donald Dell noted, if the housing boom had still been going great guns, the industrial tax base percentage might even have slipped back a bit.

But the slowdown in residential growth is another reason for cheering, as Mr. Dell might silently acknowledge.

The rapid development of homes over the past decade or so has overwhelmed the infrastructure of roads, schools, water supply, public safety services, etc. It's helped to push up the property tax rate, swell the backlog of public works needs and increased the level of citizen discontent.

For a county commissioner, that's not a happy circumstance, regardless of what the homebuilders and developers and real estate salesmen think.

Mr. Dell has to recall his agonizing decision to increase the property tax rate in 1996 in an desperate effort to catch up with long-delayed needs of a burgeoning population.

And for all the talk of fiscal conservatism and tight-fisted management, the tax rate hasn't gone down since. With the economy showing every sign of decelerating, while the community's needs accelerate, there's not much chance of a decrease this year or next.

That is why the best hope for Carroll's continued prosperity is to increase its industrial tax base. Because, as most folks realize, industrial taxpayers require less in the way of government services than the amount of tax revenue they provide. Residential taxpayers, on the other hand, typically get more services than they pay for in taxes.

The rule of thumb is that industrial taxpayers get 55 cents in services for every dollar of taxes paid, while the average homeowner receives $1.22 in county services for every tax dollar paid.

Yes, the county could decide to become a bedroom community as a matter of policy and taxation, discouraging industrial development and its attendant encroachment and inconvenience. But that would send the property tax rate soaring, to $4 and higher, which wouldn't find popular support even from those who cringe at the sight of any bulldozer or backhoe.

So the solution is to encourage more industrial growth.

As Mr. Lyburn points out, a lot of that development can come from businesses already on the scene.

The expansion of the Random House Inc. book distribution complex outside Westminster and the doubling of the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. plant near Union Bridge are two major examples of long established Carroll concerns that are growing their business and boosting the county's industrial tax base.

And while you'd never think of it as an industrial concern, the Carroll Lutheran Village seniors housing complex is another expanding business cites by Mr. Lyburn as contributing to the tax base rise.

The housing boom has settled down. New laws have reined in runaway subdivisions. Water shortages have crimped housing plans in several areas.

Attracting businesses to Carroll is key to growing the industrial tax base. It can't all come from expansion of resident companies.

The cry is to rezone more land for industrial use to lure these newcomers. The county needs another 1,000 acres of marketable land to pitch to prospects, the economic development folks say. Now, some 1,000 acres of privately owned land is up before the planning and zoning commission for conversion to industrial zoning.

But the county planning staff is only keen on rezoning about 100 acres of those properties. Lack of water and sewer and viable roads make much of that land unsuitable for industrial development. Concerns about impact on protected reservoir watersheds also advise against its industrial use.

And while the controversy over rezoning in the watershed has taken center stage, the truth is that there are other serious deficiencies in the county's portfolio of industrial properties.

According to Mr. Lyburn, the county needs to have sites with the above mentioned water and sewer, roads and natural gas lines. That's expensive infrastructure.

Not only that, the development chief says Carroll is losing solid prospects because it doesn't have on hand large buildings waiting for clients to occupy immediately.

That's another tall order. Even if the county rezoned 5,000 more acres for potential industrial use, it seems that's only the beginning. The cost of significantly raising the county's industrial tax base is getting higher and higher.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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