Towson and taxes

April 17, 2006

It didn't take long for certain members of the Baltimore County Council to start speculating on how they could squeeze a cut in property taxes out of County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s fiscal 2007 budget proposal. Whenever politicians are facing re-election, the temptation to make headlines is high. But here's the frustrating thing about Baltimore County's fiscally conservative approach to government: The tax cut is already there. It's just hidden in the complexity of how Maryland's property taxes work.

But first, let's give critics their due. Mr. Smith last week proposed a $1.6 billion county budget that's about 10 percent bigger than the year before. That's a pretty hefty increase, and it's made possible largely by higher tax revenues generated by the real estate boom. But it's also about the same rate of growth as the state budget proposed this year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and recently approved by the General Assembly.

Much of the money goes to schools, not only for teachers but also for classrooms. Mr. Smith's school construction and renovation program would top $107 million, a historic amount. The proposed school budget will make possible 197 hires, an accelerated program of middle school renovations, and a new $23.7 million Vincent Farm Elementary School in the crowded northeastern corner of the county.

Teachers would gain on average a 5 percent raise (firefighters and police officers fare even better), and this is also appropriate. Baltimore County's education spending lags about $250 per pupil behind the statewide average, according to a recent analysis. A county so prosperous can ill afford to neglect its schools or its teaching staff.

The list of notable projects funded by this budget is long and includes a new library in Perry Hall and community centers in Arbutus, Randallstown and Dundalk. Mr. Smith rightly boasts that this budget invests in a better quality of life for county residents, a proven selling point for the region. Baltimore County has added thousands of jobs in recent years and is now the state's second-largest employment center.

And where is the tax cut? Mr. Smith proposes keeping the county's 4 percent cap on property assessments. If, as the executive has recommended, the county maintains its current tax rate, the average homeowner will see no more than a 4 percent increase in property taxes.

That's a bigger deal than it sounds. The assessment cap (which is far lower than what allegedly tight-fisted counties such as Carroll and Harford offer homeowners) will save taxpayers an estimated $65 million in taxes, the equivalent of a 12.5-cent cut in the tax rate for the coming year. This is a remarkably prudent approach to keeping a lid on taxes while continuing to invest in the county's prosperous future.

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