County voices fiscal opinions

Poll finds majority would support tax increases, budget cuts

March 21, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

A majority of county residents support a mixture of tax increases and cost cuts to tackle looming budget challenges, yet about the same number don't trust the local government to strike the right balance, according to a new Anne Arundel Community College survey.

Fifty percent of the 529 residents polled two weeks ago also said they supported a school system that is of "absolute top quality regardless of the cost." Only a quarter, however, supported raising taxes to pay for the $133 million increase in education spending proposed by Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell.

Twenty percent wanted to cut other county services to support that initiative, and 43 percent wanted to fund the increase "to the extent possible without increasing taxes and reducing other county services."

The survey indicates that County Executive John R. Leopold's approach of exploring tax increases and budget cuts to balance the budget might hit the right chord in the generally tax-averse county, said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, which conducted the poll.

Leopold, a Republican, has cut about $1.5 million through a restructuring of his administration and has asked department heads to trim their budgets by up to 10 percent.

He has also proposed increases in taxes and fees mostly aimed at new residents or tourists, such as a car-rental tax, an increase in the commercial bingo tax and higher impact fees for residential development.

"Everybody is a liberal on spending and a conservative on taxes," Nataf said. "If you go to the public with a reasonable plan that some cost reductions are being made and some tax increases are needed, I don't think that gets you fired or not re-elected."

With the county facing a series of soaring expenses - including paying for 10 union contracts and rising retiree health care costs for Anne Arundel employees, along with education - three in 10 said the local government should refrain from raising taxes, even if that results in cutting public services. But 55 percent said the county should address these costs with budget cuts and tax increases.

Still, 52 percent said they do not trust the county government to keep taxes as low as possible given the rising costs.

Leopold, who campaigned on rebuilding public trust in the county's fiscal management, compared changing that mindset to turning around the Titanic.

"People see government at all levels not spending their money wisely," said Leopold, who presents his first budget in May. "There's far too many examples where the voters are rightly concerned about fiscal responsibility. ... It's deep-seated."

Leopold and some Republicans on the County Council have called on the school board to emulate his budget approach of counterbalancing new spending with administrative and program cuts.

So far, the board has refrained, saying the school system needs a cash infusion to compensate for persistent underfunding and to improve performance. Leopold has said he will not fully fund the proposed $920 million education budget.

School officials saw a positive note in the poll findings. For example, 61 percent of respondents who have children in the public school system said they want top-quality schools regardless of cost. Among those who enroll their children in private school, 49 percent concurred.

County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said it was "more encouraging" that 46 percent of the respondents who do not have children want a top-notch education system regardless of price.

"We have said all along that if we're going to move this school system from good to great, we need more money," he said. "We certainly look at this as a show of support for that."

The poll also indicates that the public supports Leopold's positions on banning roadside panhandling (76 percent); backs imposing a statewide smoking ban in restaurants and bars (68 percent); and supports revitalizing the northern and western areas of the county (75 percent)

Survey highlights

Anne Arundel Community College conducted a poll of 529 people from March 5 to 8. The margin of error is about 4.25 percent. Among the findings:

50 percent favored "a school system which is absolutely top quality regardless of cost"

71 percent said the county's economic condition was either "good" or "excellent"

76 percent favored the banning of roadside panhandling

68 percent supported a smoking ban in all restaurants and bars

58 percent oppose a repeal of the death penalty in Maryland

69 percent supported the raising of developer impact fees

34 percent approved of President Bush's job performance, a 5-point drop from the fall

Sun reporter Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.

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