Maryland spending proposal could force county tax hikes

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Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield,Taxes,Montgomery County

A bill before the Maryland Senate would require counties to maintain current levels of spending on public safety, transportations and libraries -- something critics say will almost certainly lead to county tax increases.

The legislature passed a similar law last year requiring so-called "maintenance of effort" for education, meaning counties wouldn't receive their share of state aid to education unless they provided the same level of funding they did the previous year. That effectively forbids them from cutting funding for education.

Montgomery County Council members said that would tie their hands when writing the budget and leave them no choice but to raise taxes in tough economic times.

They voted to oppose the bill by state Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery County, that would forbid county governments across Maryland from cutting funding to certain "critical services."

Manno's bill would extend that de facto prohibition from education budget cuts to corrections, law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, public libraries and transportation.

County council members were outraged by the measure.

"What were they smoking?" asked Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, D-at large.

"This is another ill-conceived state law meant to handcuff the counties," said Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg and Rockville. "It's appalling that it's being sponsored by some of our county senators."

The bill is co-sponsored by Manno's fellow Montgomery County Democrats, Sens. Richard Madaleno and Nancy King. Manno and King did not respond to calls for comment.

Madaleno said that over the next few years state revenue -- which is derived primarily through sales and income taxes -- would likely rebound from the recent recession faster than county revenue, which comes from property and income taxes.

In Maryland, property taxes are assessed every three years, unlike in D.C. and Virginia, which assess annually. So property values -- and property taxes -- will likely stay relatively low as Maryland recovers from the recession.

Madaleno said the concern was that revenues as lagged, counties would be asking for increased state aid -- but not necessarily for the needs the state seeks to support.

"If that dynamic plays out, how much goes toward new spending, and how much could be used flexibly by locals governments to substitute for their own funds?" he asked. "If we put a million more into police aid, does that mean a million more is going to be spent on police, or does that mean counties have to spend a million less of their own money on their police?"

Council President Nancy Navarro, D-Eastern County, said it was explained to her that the bill arose out of concern about a lack of state oversight on how the county spends its share of state aid.

Councilman George Leventhal said the bill goes against the entire purpose of the creation of county governments. "If the state legislature decides to continue on this direction and intrude on charter home rule ... I think they'll regret it," Leventhal said. "They'll find we ought to let the county government run the government instead of running it from Annapolis."

Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large, worried that the bill would force Montgomery County to make deep cuts to things like health facilities if another economic crisis hits Maryland like the one that hit in 2008.

Leventhal worried that counties would be forced to dramatically increase taxes to make sure they continue to receive state aid. "This is a recipe for endless tax increases as far as the eye can see," Leventhal said.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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Andy Brownfield

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner