Officials warn growth failing to pay for itself

Taxes from new residents don't cover service costs

`New revenue streams' sought

$20,000 impact fee for new homes suggested

February 16, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County government gives new meaning to the phrase "house poor."

The county is one of the fastest-growing residential areas in the Baltimore metropolitan region, and it's known for its affordable housing.

But there a major problem associated with this growth, according to county officials: Many of these houses don't generate enough tax revenue to cover the cost of services, such as education and police protection.

"People are always asking, `If we have all of the new housing going up, why are we in a budget crunch?'" said Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican who represents the Bel Air area.

"Our problem is that we have too many people buying $90,000 townhouses," he said. "They have two kids, and what they pay in property taxes and income taxes doesn't cover the cost of sending their kids to school or for parks and recreation, social services or police protection."

County Treasurer James M. Jewell estimates that the average home, including apartments, condominiums and single-family housing, pays only 85 percent of the cost of services in taxes.

The average home sale price is about $174,000. This is well below the $250,000 that officials estimate is needed to break even.

Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said recently that the gap between taxes and cost of services is a factor in the school system's low spending per pupil.

Harford spends $6,515 a year on each student, according to Donald Morrison, a spokesman for the public school system.

"Caroline County is at the bottle of the list," said Haas, "and Harford County is next to the bottom." She said Montgomery County spends about $11,000 per student.

"We can't continue on the path we are now on," said County Council President Robert S. Wagner. "It's time we give serious consideration to new revenue streams.

"It's on everybody's mind," he continued. "It has been bounced around, talked about and brainstormed for some time. Nobody likes to raise taxes, but something needs to be done."

Wagner said the council could consider an impact fee of $20,000, maybe even $25,000, on each new house. He said a fee of $3,000 to $5,000 on new homes doesn't go far enough to cover the millions of dollars needed for spending on new schools alone.

"Realistically, to cover fire and police protection, parks and recreation, and schools you've got to be looking at a fee of $20,000 to $25,000 on a new home," Wagner said.

A renovation of North Harford High School, designed to expand its capacity and upgrade its facilities, is budgeted at $44 million. "But it would not be fair to put too much of the costs for new schools on buyers of new homes," Wagner said.

He noted that some older neighborhoods are being revitalized, and that people moving into them also have an impact on the school system.

"If we're going to have an impact fee," he said, "perhaps it should not only affect new houses."

John O'Neill Jr., county administrative officer, said the impact-fee legislation being pushed in Annapolis by County Executive James M. Harkins would have owners of new homes pay a bigger portion of the costs associated with schools and roads.

"Somebody has to pay," Cassilly said. "If not, we are going to have more schools like Southampton [Middle School] all over the county."

Southampton was 6 percent over capacity at the start of the current school year, Morrison said. Some of its pupils are taking classes in 15 portable classrooms.

Morrison said the problem was even worse the previous school year when Southampton was 33 percent over capacity. Some pupils were moved this year to other locations.

"We're playing a shell game," Morrison said, "with kids being moved around, but eventually we are going to need a new middle school."

He said that if nothing changes, it is projected that Southampton will be 37 percent over capacity in 2010.

The problem doesn't end there. Morrison said that other schools are crowded as well, including Fallston Middle School, at 28 percent over capacity, and Bel Air Middle School, which has 8 percent more pupils than it was designed to handle.

"The county needs to do something to slow or control the rate of growth," said political activist George F. Harrison Jr., owner of Harrison's Paint Center in Bel Air.

"There is no control over growth except the economy, and as soon as the economy improves, things will get out of hand," he said. "There's no real management of growth in this county."

Harrison said townhouses are good because they provide moderate-income people with affordable housing. "But they are a big part of the problem. Townhouses pay the least amount of taxes and they usually have the most kids," Harrison said.

Lance C. Miller, a Republican council member who represents the northern part of the county, said it is not fair to look only at income and property taxes when determining a homeowner's contributions to the county. "These people contribute to the economy when they buys cars, go out to restaurants, hire a plumber or have somebody install drywall," he said.

To help ease the problem, O'Neill said, the county has been aggressively trying to attract new industry. Because of the size of their buildings, he said, companies pay more in taxes, but require fewer services.

"What we need," said Cassilly, "is more $400,000 homes with no kids."

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