Property tax cut expected in Balto. Co.

Move could generate political goodwill for Ruppersberger

$10 million cut possible

Several on council say they would back likely proposal

April 15, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is likely to propose a tax cut - the first in seven years - in the budget he unveils tomorrow, officials familiar with the executive's plans said.

"I heard that there was going to be a property tax cut," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "I heard it might be about $10 million."

That would mean a $30 reduction for the owner of an average county home assessed at $140,000. The County Council would have to reduce the tax rate, now $1.142 per $100 in assessed value, to produce the savings.

Ruppersberger, a Democrat, would not confirm his intentions, saying the 2002 fiscal-year budget was incomplete. "It is by no means a finished product; things are still changing," said spokeswoman Elise Armacost. "Any comments about what it includes or does not include are premature."

The tax cut would reverse a years-long policy of plowing the county's sizable budget surpluses into school renovations and other one-time capital spending.

It would also generate goodwill as Ruppersberger recovers from last year's damaging property rights battle over Senate Bill 509 and positions himself for the 2002 governor's race. Term limits prohibit the executive from seeking re-election.

"He has not been getting good press," said state Del. Martha S. Klima, a Republican from Lutherville. "I think this would be a wise move for him to do, to bolster a view that `I really care about the people.'"

Asked whether she thought a tax cut would be motivated by policy or politics, Klima said, "It's probably both, but politics is probably behind everything we do. I'm a little cynical."

A reduction would allow Ruppersberger to contrast his fiscal policy with that of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The governor submitted a budget this year that exceeded the state's spending affordability guidelines and could set the stage for future tax increases, critics have said. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the front-runner in the governor's race.

Ruppersberger proposed and the County Council approved a $1.8 billion budget for the current fiscal year. The council must adopt a budget by June 1 for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The council can cut from the executive's budget but cannot add to it. It also must approve legislation setting the property and piggy-back income tax rates.

Support evident

Several council members said they would support Ruppersberger if he asked for a tax cut.

"I absolutely believe it's a good idea," said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. The Bush administration is pushing for a federal income tax cut, and "we should follow suit," Olszewski said.

"We said that if things were decent, we would give something back," said council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley of Catonsville.

A decision to return $10 million to property owners would come at a time when the economy is faltering and budget demands are growing.

Police officers are guaranteed a 10 percent salary increase next year, and school officials asked for $20 million more than the executive wanted to spend.

In Baltimore City, officials are considering an income tax increase or an energy tax to boost revenue.

$133 million surplus

Still, the county ended its last budget year with a $133.6 million surplus. It put $34.7 million in a rainy-day fund, earmarked some for this year, and still had a $57 million cushion.

"It's a small step in the right direction," said John D. O'Neill of Ruxton, former president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association. "But $10 million is a pittance compared with the surpluses they've run in the past few years."

While county officials agree there is little public outcry for a tax cut, Gardina said: "It's needed, from my perception, to improve government efficiency."

A year ago, Ruppersberger rejected the idea of a tax cut, saying spending on "schools and infrastructure ... is an investment in the future."

"I will not fall into the trap of trying to look good politically by saying I will cut taxes," he said in January 2000.

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