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Md. speaker slams idea of tax hike

September 27, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. Monday criticized the Washington County Commissioners' plan to seek a state sales tax increase in Washington County to help pay off the county water and sewer debt and predicted it would get short shrift in Annapolis.

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"I think it would be summarily rejected," Taylor said.

The County Commissioners on Sept. 21 agreed to ask the Maryland General Assembly to increase the 5 percent state sales tax to 6 percent in Washington County.

When Commissioner Paul L. Swartz floated the idea at a July meeting with the delegation, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, told him there was virtually no chance such a request would gain legislative approval.

Swartz said state legislators opposing the proposals do not want to relinquish control of the coffers.

Increasing the sales tax by a penny would raise $12 million a year and help pay off the county's water and sewer debt of about $52 million, he said. When the debt is paid off the county could ask for the tax to be reduced, he said.

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Taylor said the potential use of a sales tax increase for a local purpose "violates our whole system."

The sales tax has never been used for solving a local problem and "that (tax) system has been in place for a long, long time," he said.

The county has the ability to raise property or income taxes and should explore those options instead, Taylor said.

Neither move would require state legislative approval.

County residents pay a county "piggyback tax" equal to 50 percent of the income tax they pay to the state. The county has the authority to raise that to 60 percent.

That 10 percent increase would bring in about $6 million in its first two years and cost the average taxpayer about $150 a year, county Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian said.

Increasing the property tax rate .01 percent would raise about $270,000 annually and cost the average taxpayer about $5, she said.

The county increased the property tax rate by 10 cents in July 1997 and raised $2.5 million.

The county has been wrestling with debt incurred by the Washington County Sanitary Commission before it was taken over by the Washington County Commissioners in December 1995.

Only one of the current commissioners, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, was in county elected office at that time.

The county has given more than $9 million in grants to the Water and Sewer Department since July 1995 to pay for debt and the underused Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant.

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