In November 1978, the voters of Prince George's County--caught in the fever that gave California its Proposition 13--amended the county charter to freeze the amount of money that can be raised through real estate taxes. The amendment, called TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative for Marylanders), froze that amount at $144 million forever.
There is no provision in the TRIM amendment to allow for the fact that inflation is driving up the cost of goods and services purchased by the county. Additionally, although new construction requires additional county services such as police and fire protection, the taxes collected from the new construction do not, under TRIM, increase the total tax limit of $144 million. Therefore, the county must stretch its services to accommodate this new construction, using existing resources. The question is--how far can these services stretch before they begin to break down?
TRIM has had some beneficial effects. It has forced our county officials at all levels to stop and carefully evaluate their priorities before they spend our tax money. Programs and services that were "nice to have" but not necessary have been eliminated. Schools with vacant seats are being closed.
Most of the changes have been subtle and may not have been noticed by most Prince George's residents. We have become used to reduced library hours and changes in our school curriculum. We have adjusted to other reduced county services over the last couple of years.
While possibly unnoticed by the general public, some of these changes are serious:
4 Ten percent of the fire calls go unanswered or are answered by undermanned equipment. This compares to 2 percent in 1978, when TRIM was enacted. Fire department response time is now five to 25 minutes, depending on the distance--up from two to 10 minutes in 1978, according to information from the Professional Firefighters Association.
5 Some police beats go virtually uncovered for a week at a time. Meanwhile, policemen are required to park their cars and shut off their engines for extended periods of time to save gasoline instead of patrolling neighborhoods.
The school system, training ground for our children and future community leaders, is in trouble. Supplies are scarce, and equipment is often unusable for lack of parts. At a time when teen-age driving accidents and fatalities are high, the school system has been forced to cut back the driver education program. Programs that teach responsibility and leadership, such as junior high interscholastic sports and junior ROTC, have been discontinued or are in danger.
The effects of TRIM have been greater than the property tax limit itself. While not all of the changes cited above can be directly attributed to TRIM, the policy has engendered a "can't do" attitude ("No matter what it is, we can't afford it"). Throughout the county government, programs and services are being cut without apparent regard for their worth. New programs or initiatives are just not being considered. On the other side of the ledger, our county officials, also apparently afflicted with the "TRIM mentality," do not seem to be aggressively seeking alternative sources of revenue. The cumulative effect is that the inner structure of the county government (out of public view) is being eroded and the shell is collapsing on its citizens.
The future looks bleak. The "new federalism" promises to put still greater financial burdens on the county. Many of the programs currently run by the federal government will still be mandated, but the block grant system will provide less money to pay for them. The county will have to pick up the tab.
The Plus Four Committee is circulating a petition to place an amendment to TRIM on the November ballot. The amendment would improve TRIM by adding the property tax collected from new construction to the TRIM limit, thus providing new revenue. It also would give the county council the flexibility to increase the TRIM limit by no more than 4 percent per year, if needed. These changes would not solve the county's fiscal problems, but they should help.