Taxable base exceeds city's

State assessment shows Howard $6 billion higher

`It's surprising to me'

Soaring price of land, homes gets the credit

March 14, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like a teen-ager after a growth spurt, Howard County officials are looking in wonder at their reflection in state assessment figures showing the county's taxable base is now worth more than much larger Baltimore City's.

Howard's total value - covering residential and commercial/industrial property - outpaced Baltimore for the first time in 2001, though Howard's residential base passed the city's in 1998. Baltimore's concentration of businesses and industry kept the city's total tax base larger for three more years, said state assessment officials.

The county's assessable base of $25.42 billion will be $6 billion larger than Baltimore's by July 1, according to state estimates, thanks largely to the soaring price of suburban land and homes, and despite having only 40 percent of Baltimore's population.

"Wow. It's surprising to me," said Howard Executive James N. Robey, a county native and career Howard police officer more accustomed to thinking of his domain as a prosperous - but small - adjunct to the big city 20 miles away.

"It's almost startling," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive and longtime Columbia resident. "Little Howard County. I remember when Route 29 was two lanes."

"It just accentuates what a significant economic force we are in the region," she said.

In addition, Howard County's newer public assets are worth nearly as much as much larger Baltimore County's, and far surpass them on a per capita basis. Although Baltimore County is nearly three times Howard's size in land and population, Howard's publicly owned buildings, bridges and parks are worth 86 percent of Baltimore County's, according to current accounting standards.

"We may not have lots of cash," said Sharon Greisz, Howard's finance director, referring to tight budgets and revenue shortfalls, "but we're spending our money on things that have value."

Few people were aware of the dimensions of Howard's fiscal ascendancy.

"I didn't know that," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who noted the city's illegal drug epidemic has produced a continuing abandonment by residents - leaving hundreds of empty, decaying rowhouses and a relative few enclaves of high-end properties.

The latest crisis, which pushed the beleaguered city school system to the brink of bankruptcy or midyear teacher layoffs, has not helped.

Economists are less surprised because of the decades-long trend of urban decline and fast suburban growth. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties passed the city in assessable base value years ago, and Baltimore County's assessable base is nearly double Howard's; Anne Arundel's is 72 percent larger.

"I think it's reinforcing rather than surprising," said John Hopkins, assistant director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

But Anirban Basu, former RESI director who now has an economic forecasting business, Optimal Solutions Group, said, "That is remarkable." It speaks to Howard's development "at lightning speed" and the impetus provided by the Rouse Co.-developed Columbia, where nearly 40 percent of the county's population lives.

"Baltimore City is still losing people to the suburbs, and housing stock is still depreciating," Hopkins said.

Alfred W. Barry III, former deputy city planning director who now owns an urban planning consulting firm, said, "The important thing to remember about Howard County is the explosive growth in commercial office development.

"The amount of people commuting to Howard now for jobs is incredible," said Barry, who believes a more regional approach to Baltimore's decline is required.

According to figures from the Maryland Department of Labor and Licensing, the number of jobs in Howard County grew 66 percent in the dozen years after 1990, while shrinking 17 percent in Baltimore.

At the same time, Howard's residential base is worth $15.6 billion, compared with Baltimore's $11.3 billion value, according to state assessment records.

"It shows how far the city has to go to begin revitalizing its residential tax base, as well as continuing to invest in downtown," Barry said, noting that Howard County is now nearing a point where it to will be built out.

"Howard is running out of land for residential and commercial development," Barry said.

Gerrit J. Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth, said the shift in Howard's net worth vs. Baltimore's is part of a national phenomenon that needs a regional solution.

"Maryland makes a lot of claims to have one of the more advanced Smart Growth programs, but until you start addressing the Baltimore problem regionally, it just makes things real difficult," he said.

Still, Howard County has just 266,300 people to Baltimore's 638,614 and Baltimore County's 778,746. But Howard is working on its fifth new high school in the past decade, to Baltimore County's one in the past 25 years, and has routinely sold bonds to build major highway intersections and schools as needed, without waiting for state financing.

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