ANNAPOLIS, MAY 24 -- The opening salvos in what promises to be an intense election-year debate over property taxes in Anne Arundel County were fired today when the County Council refused to lower the tax rate more than a nickel.

After three weeks of review, the seven-member council approved a $616 million operating budget for fiscal 1991 that is virtually identical to the one proposed this month by County Executive James Lighthizer, despite some last-minute lobbying from a taxpayer's group that promised to take its case to the voters.

While council members managed to pare about $2.2 million from Lighthizer's spending plan, the bottom line was actually several hundred thousand dollars higher than the original proposal because of additions council members requested. The council set the tax rate at $2.51 for $100 of assessed value, a 5-cent decrease in accordance with Lighthizer's request.

"It hasn't been an easy month, but I think we've done a responsible job for the taxpayers," said council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett. "We don't sit here not listening to the hundreds of people who come to testify, but respond to their needs."

In anticipation of the council's action, members of the taxpayer's group, Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, presented the legislators with a petition to put an initiative on the November ballot. The petition, which the group said had 5,000 signatures, would limit the amount of property tax revenue the government could collect.

If approved, the Anne Arundel measure would result in an immediate loss of up to $60 million in revenue beginning in July of next year, according to county budget officials. The group had wanted the council to cut the tax rate by 28-cents this year in preparation.

When it became clear today that council members had been swayed instead by the hundreds of people who turned out at earlier public hearings demanding increased services, Robert Schaeffer, the group's president, said his organization would work to have them defeated for reelection.

But county officials said that in coming months, they plan to wage a counteroffensive. Council member Carole Baker, who is not seeking reelection, said she would be working this summer to disseminate information showing that the ballot initiative would result in drastic cutbacks in education and public safety spending.