County executive calls for increase in local income tax

`We need the revenue,' Owens says

members of County Council object

Anne Arundel

February 11, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

County Executive Janet S. Owens says she wants to increase the county income tax rate by nearly a fifth, setting up a head-on collision in the spring with the County Council.

"At this point, due to things beyond our control, we need the revenue," Owens said yesterday.

The increase would raise the county income tax rate to 3 percent from 2.56 percent. A household earning the median county income - about $62,000 - would pay nearly $275 more in income tax for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The increase would raise an additional $48 million for the county, officials said.

But more than half of the Republican-led council has said it would vote against an income tax increase, which the Democratic county executive would propose in May with her annual budget.

"We are pretty far apart," said Council Vice Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. "It's going to be a very interesting May. I'll leave it at that."

Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks said the council has begun discussions about preparing an alternative budget plan - one that is not based on tax increases. He said the council wants to provide employee pay raises, though maybe not as large as the ones Owens will offer.

"It's certainly time to look for some serious reformation [of government]," said Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican. "A lot of people still say there's a lot of waste there, and I don't totally disagree."

Last fall, Owens launched a public relations campaign telling residents they could have higher taxes or reduced services. She has long mentioned the income tax as one of the taxes that could be raised, but her announcement marks the first time she has put a figure on how much.

Owens' announcement comes as her attempt to raise revenue by creating a cellular phone tax is apparently coming to an end, council members said. To tax cell phone use by Anne Arundel residents, she would need legislation to pass through the General Assembly, and she hasn't been able to find anyone to introduce such legislation.

Owens also has announced possible increases for next fiscal year to the amusement tax on movies and bingo, the parking tax for garages and lots, and the hotel and motel tax. And she has sent legislation to the council that would increase the county's water and sewer rates by 7.5 percent, while also adding fees.

Anne Arundel has a decade-old limit on property tax revenue increases, which would prevent any substantial county property tax rate increase.

The income tax would likely create the largest divide between Owens and the council. Even Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat who is known as Owens' firmest supporter on the council, balked at the idea of an income tax increase when Owens floated the idea last fall.

If Owens were to propose a budget that includes $48 million in revenue from a tax increase, the council would be forced to approve the increase or cut the equivalent amount in spending.

"It's a political ploy putting it into our laps," Middlebrooks said.

Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said yesterday that Owens has excluded the council in her fiscal planning.

"In [fiscal year] '04, everyone predicted '05 would be difficult, and at that time there were grand pledges of communication," Vitale said. "We're dialoguing with the [General Assembly] delegation. We're dialoguing with the governor. We're not dialoguing with our own house."

Several council members, including Republican Edward R. Reilly of Crofton, said they continuously hear from constituents who don't want their taxes raised.

"My constituents are dissatisfied with how we're running our shop," Reilly said. "They're not willing to pay more money."

By state law, the county could increase its income tax rate to 3.2 percent, but Owens said she has decided against that.

Her budget office has estimated a $15 million shortfall for next fiscal year. That number will grow larger each time the county agrees to pay increases with its employee unions.

Last month, it agreed to a contract with the county's largest union that will include 2 percent cost-of-living raises for next fiscal year, officials said. That contract is subject to funding from the County Council.

Last year, the council and Owens sparred publicly over the nearly $900 million operating budget. The council approved her budget that called for a wage freeze for nearly all county employees, but then it voted down legislation needed to enact that pay freeze.

In response, Owens laid off 16 police officers, though half were recently rehired.

Sun staff writer Childs Walker contributed to this article.

Tax facts

3 percent: new county income tax rate Janet S. Owens is proposing.

2.56 percent: current tax rate.

$48 million: amount of revenue additional tax would generate.

$272: additional income tax a household earning the median household income ($61,768, according to the 2000 census) would pay.

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