Planned tax cut might not fly

Wagner aims to eliminate Harkins' 2-cent reduction

`Our needs are so great'

Council president thinks votes would override veto

April 24, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The first proposed cut in Harford County's property tax rate in a quarter-century appears to be history.

Council President Robert S. Wagner said he planned to eliminate the 2-cent cut proposed by County Executive James M. Harkins, and he said he was confident that he had the votes to override a veto.

"When you have the needs that we have in this county, I don't see the point of rolling back the property tax," Wagner said.

Wagner said he learned recently that the county was receiving $4 million less in state funding than expected for the more than $50-million renovation of North Harford High School.

"Well, here's the $4 million we need if we leave that 2 cents on the tax rate," Wagner said.

"Let's leave that 2 cents in and use it for school construction," he added. "We have got Patterson Mill [high school and middle school complex] coming on line. We've got the Bel Air High School project.

"We have got issues out there that will require large amounts of dollars," he continued. "Now is not the time to cut taxes - when you have the need for so many dollars."

Wagner is not alone in his thinking on the property tax.

"I agree with leaving it at the current rate," said Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp. "We had to raise taxes when this council first came in. Nobody wanted to do it, but we had no choice.

"Now we are in the black, but we have a lot of one-time expenses. I would love to cut taxes as much as anyone else, but I don't want to shoot myself in the foot. These are good times and we have some extra money, but it won't last."

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly said the proposed property tax cut would amount to about $50 a year for most residents.

He thinks that money could be better used to purchase land in the county's designated development "envelope," where open space is disappearing rapidly.

"We should preserve some green spaces, some open space, areas that make the county a nice place to live," he said. "We need more places where kids can play, people can go and look at the birds or take a walk. It's a quality-of-life issue, and I think the voters would support these kinds of projects."

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said the proposed tax cut "doesn't amount to a hill of beans" for residents. "It makes nice headlines, it's a good sound bite, but it boils down to less than a dollar a week for the average citizen."

His concern was that if the council cut the tax rate, it would be forced to increase it again in a year or two.

"Our needs are so great," he said. "Look at our schools; some are in deplorable condition. Area roads need work."

Councilman Lance C. Miller said, "I don't like taxes, period."

Despite that, he is not certain how he will vote on the proposal. He said it does not make sense to be considering a tax cut while the county is moving toward the adoption of an impact fee of more than $8,000 per single-family home to help pay for school construction.

The tax cut "sounded good when it was first announced," said Wagner, "but when you get down to reality, saving $50 on a home assessed at $250,000 doesn't do much at a time when we have so many needs."

The budget proposed by Harkins included a nearly 28 percent increase in spending, to $671.9 million.

Other features of the budget include:

A 13.9 percent increase in education funding.

A 7 percent pay raise for teachers.

Funding for hiring 20 new sheriff's deputies.

Funding for hiring 162 new teachers.

A 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise for county workers.

A 54 percent increase in funding to the volunteer fire companies.

"I think it is a good budget," Harkins said last month when he first disclosed his spending plan for the fiscal year starting in July. "It has something for everybody."

The council will hold two public hearings on the budget next month. The first will be at 7 p.m. May 5 at C. Milton Wright High School. The second will be at 7 p.m. May 12 at Havre de Grace High School.

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