Tax foes absent at revenue-options forum

Revenue drop, rising costs focus of public meeting

October 22, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's incipient tax protest movement wasn't in evidence last night at a public and televised two-hour discussion of the local budget dilemma and the Robey administration's request for higher real estate transfer taxes.

Several Republican legislators often critical of Democratic County Executive James N. Robey's tax policies watched from the back, but written questions accepted from the public were not hostile to the program's basic premise: how best to raise revenues to pay for the growing county's school construction and classroom staffing costs as income taxes stagnate or decline.

"I just wanted to hear how it was packaged and the questions asked. I question some of the basic assumptions," said Del. Gail S. Bates, a western county Republican.

Bates has criticized the local income tax increase Robey pushed through last spring and his request for higher transfer taxes to pay for school construction. She has said Robey should cut spending, not increase taxes.

Patrick Dornan, president of the Taxpayers Association of Howard County, said he learned about the event too late to organize a presence, so neither he nor anyone from his group attended.

Dornan wants a charter amendment on the November 2004 ballot that would make it harder for the county to raise taxes - perhaps by requiring a super-majority of four affirmative votes on the five-member County Council. But no amendment has materialized, and his group has yet to begin a petition drive to push the issue.

The meeting, sponsored by the county League of Women Voters, featured comments by Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director; school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke; Marsha McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning; and Joe Mezzanotti, secretary of the county Chamber of Commerce.

They described how Howard County is caught in an awkward squeeze on taxes, with income tax revenues declining because of the recession and the stock market slump, while expenses for needs such as school buildings, health insurance and teacher salaries are rising.

Wacks showed how income tax revenues declined last fiscal year for the first time in county history. The county will begin seeing a deficit if revenues don't increase or spending doesn't decline by the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2007 - even with the local income tax increase enacted last spring, he said.

O'Rourke noted that 37 of the county's 70 schools have enrollments larger than 110 percent of their rated capacities. The system also uses 115 temporary classrooms. Even year-round use of the schools won't erase the crowding, he said.

Since 1999, Wacks said, 1,652 employees have been hired for schools, compared with 36 for public safety, 43 for community services and the rest of county government, which lost six positions.

Roughly 80 percent of the county budget is for salaries, benefits and interest on county debts, while only 1 percent could be considered "discretionary," Wacks said.

Those pressures have led to the income tax increase - and harsh criticism from Republicans and Dornan's group.

Mezzanotti served last summer on a citizens committee appointed by Robey to recommend ways to increase revenues. The 15-member panel concluded that a higher transfer tax is the "lesser of evils" for solving the problem, he said.

The meeting was shown on the county government's cable television channel 70, and will be repeated at 12:30 p.m. weekdays and at various times between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. evenings through Oct. 31.

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