Income tax rise targeted by GOP

Two on council plan to fight proposed rate

Robey said to feel no pressure

`Our third councilman is the public,' Merdon says

Howard County

April 27, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's two Republican county councilmen are determined to slice the big income tax increase proposed by County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat -- and they think they have a secret weapon.

"Our third councilman is the public," said Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"We'll go out and talk to the people like we did on the 12th high school," he said, referring to a series of public appearances he and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman recently made as they tried to shoehorn money for that project back into the capital budget to allow the school to open in 2005.

Whether county residents agree more with Robey or with Merdon and Kittleman remains to be seen.

Robey is not feeling public pressure against raising taxes, said spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. "We've received fewer [tax complaints] this year than we have ever received," she said. And Robey is determined, she said, that county employees should all get pay raises next year, to keep Howard in the top ranks of Maryland counties.

The executive proposed an $892.4 million budget last week that includes a sharp income tax rate increase and 9.35 percent more in county spending. The income tax rise would move Howard County's rate from third-lowest in Maryland to the legal limit of 3.2 percent. A family with a median gross income of $83,100 would pay $521 more each year, not counting property tax increases.

Both Republicans stressed that, to their great frustration, they received a detailed copy of the budget only late Thursday and have not had time to examine it line by line. But their attitude has hardened toward the income tax increase since the budget came out Monday.

The council's three Democrats said it is much too early to talk about reductions, and council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, has his own idea about how to use part of the higher income tax revenue that would come in 2005.

Because the higher rate would take effect Jan. 1, the county would get $24 million in fiscal 2004 -- which begins July 1 -- but $60 million more in fiscal 2005. Guzzone believes some of that second-year cash could be used to pay for school construction without borrowing, thus limiting debt and putting the money to good use.

"I see some linkage between the operating and capital budgets," he said, "and next year's operating budget and the 12th high school," which carries a $35 million final-year price tag.

East Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes said the Republicans' views are not unexpected, but have to be taken in context.

"Warning shots have been fired over the bow and that's fine," he said. "If they've got a great idea, I'll listen. But if it's just a political ploy, that's the wrong way to go." Rakes said he is keeping an open mind.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said he is more worried about providing more services to older neighborhoods and schools than about higher taxes.

"To a certain extent, I take what those two guys say with a grain of salt. They're out there begging for a 12th high school and saying the taxes are too high. It doesn't make sense," Ulman said. "I really don't feel any pressure either way."

But Kittleman said Thursday that the Republicans have felt some pressure -- from their party.

"At a Lincoln Day dinner last night, a couple Republicans came up to me and objected," he said, to his and Merdon's "reasonable" comments on Robey's budget at its introduction. Kittleman said then that he sympathized with the executive's fiscal dilemma -- struggling to finance new schools and teachers and keep the county's pay competitive while revenues are sluggish and more state cuts are threatened.

But Robey's tax proposal -- which is about a 30 percent increase in income tax rates -- is too high, they feel, considering the economy.

"That's striking. I think it's too high. There's no question about that," Kittleman said before Thursday night's capital budget hearing. "

The majority three Democrats and Robey point out that the proposed budget is essentially bare bones except in three major areas, each of which may be hard to cut.

The new money would go primarily to hire 311 new school employees, to raise county employee salaries by 4 percent, and to pay higher fixed costs skipped in last year's fiscal crunch -- such as the self-insurance fund and the fund to replace county vehicles when they wear out.

"No one likes to pay insurance, but you have to pay it," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

Kittleman and Merdon said they want the county to hire all the new teachers Robey funded, and they want teachers to get the 4 percent pay raises they bargained for with the school board, but everything else they plan to examine closely.

The pay raise for general county workers is most questionable, they said, because of the weak national economy.

County union leaders counter that they went without general pay raises last year, and should not have to wait another year.

"We have slipped down from near the top of the Big Seven [counties] down toward the bottom," in salaries, said Rich Ruehl, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association.

But Merdon and Kittleman are undeterred.

"I don't think there's any question that we will develop a budget with less spending and less taxes," Merdon said. "In my heart, I'm saying, `Can we really afford it?' " Kittleman said, adding that there's another thought, too.

"What's the cost of not doing it?"

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