Proposed tax increase draws mixed reaction

Shock, dismay, resignation, some support greet plan

Howard County

April 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

From Guilford to Glenwood, historic Ellicott City to Columbia, Howard County residents have sharply contrasting feelings about the big income tax increase proposed by County Executive James N. Robey. They want wealthy Howard to spend what is needed to stay in the top rank of Maryland's 24 subdivisions, but such a sharp, one-time jolt is inspiring shock.

"I can afford it, but I hate to pay it," said Lucien Berry, 81, a 45-year resident of Clarksville who was shopping at River Hill Village Center yesterday. "I think they're doing a pretty doggoned good job" running the county, he conceded, but the prospect of income taxes going up hundreds of dollars in one year is "too much," the retired defense department data systems analyst said.

On Monday, Robey asked the County Council to raise the county's income tax rate from Maryland's third-lowest (2.45 percent) to the legal limit of 3.2 percent, bringing in an extra $24 million in fiscal 2004 and $60 million more the year after that.

The increase would take effect Jan. 1. Robey said he needs the money to maintain county services, pay fixed-cost increases and give county workers a 4 percent pay raise, if the state does not take that money via more budget reductions.

"I have raised this [tax rate] to a level that's kept me awake a few nights," he told reporters before his formal address to the County Council Monday evening.

That large an increase is far more than any other metropolitan Maryland county has requested for the next fiscal year. It would cost a family with a median county gross income of $83,100 an extra $521 a year, not counting higher property taxes resulting from higher state rates and higher assessments. The County Council has a month to consider the increase.

"I think that is too much," said Leroy Hodge, 42, of Cooksville, in western Howard. Although he has two children in county schools, Hodge said the increase is too sharp all at one time. "I don't mind tax increases, but that seems extreme to me," he said.

But Steven Archuleta, 35, a California native who owns a home in Ellicott City's historic district, disagreed.

"I believe you get what you pay for. I'm happy to be in Howard County as opposed to Baltimore," he said, noting he had lived in that city for 18 months.

David Meyers, 85, Archuleta's next-door neighbor scoffed at all that, and at the notion, for example, that the county needs more teachers to keep first- and second-grade class sizes at 19 children to one teacher.

"You know what it was when I was in school? Thirty-five in a class!" he said. "There's too many police, too," he said, with two cars at every incident. A resident of Old Columbia Pike since 1946, he said the county has changed too much. "It's a millionaires' county," he said, turning from his parking space to climb the dozens of steps he cut years ago into the steep hillside behind his house.

Bobby Harris, 62, was sitting in a barber's chair in a Guilford shopping center along U.S. 1, musing about what a burden such a large increase would be.

"It's a bit much, but bottom line is you gotta keep abreast of what other counties are doing. You don't want to be below par," he said. Robey said he must raise civil servants' pay to keep the best teachers and police, firefighters and snowplow drivers from defecting to Montgomery County or to private firms. Howard has never raised its income tax rate, and lowered it five years ago, he said. With revenues sluggish and state cuts to deal with, he insists he had no choice.

But Barbara Bell, a Glenwood dentist dropping off armfuls of clothing at a dry cleaner's near the county's Glenwood library said, "I don't see why you have to go to the top" tax rate all at once. "What happens when the economy rebounds - do you ever get the money back?" she asked.

Columbia residents seemed more supportive.

Peter J. Rogers Jr., a Columbia business executive with four children in county schools who has served four years on the county's Spending Affordability Committee, did not criticize Robey's move.

"It bothers me whenever taxes go up," he said, but "I would support a tax increase to fund what is required. I prefer to see taxes assessed locally," rather than by state or federal governments, he said "because we have better control over them."

"I personally feel if it's for teachers and education I'm for that," said Barbara Hartley, 58, a Columbia resident since 1969 who was in Glenwood yesterday for a doctor's appointment.

And Donald Dunn, 74, an Ellicott City resident and member of the county's Commission on Aging, said, "I'm willing to pay as long as everybody else is in the same boat. This county is good for what it gives to senior citizens, he said.

But lower-income workers are worried.

"I'm a single mom with three kids, and I don't think it's right," said Tricia Carpenter, shopping in the Owen Brown Giant Food store early yesterday morning. "They can find a different way to do it. There must be some other way."

John Taylor, a slow-growth advocate and civic activist for 15 years, said the tax increase is just more proof of what he has been saying all along - that too much development is costing county residents much more than it pays.

"I don't like writing a bigger check each year to make Stuart Greenebaum richer," he said, referring to the Pikesville developer planning the huge mixed-use project in Fulton called Maple Lawn Farms.

"The tax increase is a growth penalty," he said.

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