Delegation and Commissioners discuss tax hikes

February 14, 2001

Delegation and Commissioners discuss tax hikes

By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Billed last week as having the potential to be a Valentine's Day massacre or a love-in, a meeting between the Washington County Commissioners and Washington County state lawmakers Wednesday turned out to be a little of both.

The 90-minute discussion about taxes and the county's budget problems ended in an impasse.

The two groups fundamentally disagree about which kind of tax is best, with some arguing against any tax increase.

The meeting began and ended on a friendly note. Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, handed out glimmering heart-shaped stickers and Commissioner Paul Swartz thanked the delegation for "asking us to be your Valentine."

In between, the talk got heated at times.

Last week the delegation killed the commissioners' request for authority to charge a 1 percent tax on property transactions to raise money for school construction and land preservation.


Some lawmakers said the transfer tax would punish residents who have lived in the county all their lives and have chosen to downsize.

As an alternative, Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, suggested the county use impact fees, levied only on new construction.

When the commissioners were cool to that idea last week, Shank, who last week predicted the meeting would be a massacre or a love-in, offered another alternative - an excise tax similar to one being sought for Frederick County, Md. An excise tax also is charged on new construction, but would give the commissioners more flexibility in spending the money than would an impact fee, Shank said.

Commissioner John L. Schnebly said an excise tax would discourage the kind of commercial growth that is profitable to the county.

When Shank pointed out the county could exempt certain groups, Schnebly said the tax wouldn't raise enough money to be helpful.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said it's also a fairness issue. A transfer tax would spread the burden among the most people. It's a type of tax that more than half the counties in Maryland use.

Shank said he is philosophically opposed to the transfer tax.

"We're going to let the people coming in off the hook. You have to anticipate that growth or it will bury you," he said.

But Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington, said they oppose any new tax.

"Both taxing requests are equally ridiculous. I question this monkey-see monkey-do attitude with Frederick County," Bartlett said.

Instead of raising taxes, the county should cut costs, he said.

"You've obviously never run a business," Schnebly said.

The commissioners discussed their money woes, complaining that construction projects delayed by earlier boards of commissioners must be undertakenand the cost of funding education is going up while state contributions go down.

The commissioners are looking at ways to save money, with school consolidation for example.

Schnebly criticized lawmakers for trying to exact too much local control.

"Sometimes we get the impression that the message is, 'You all don't know what you're doing. You're just a bunch of bumpkins,'" Schnebly said. He later apologized.

Now that it appears there will be no new taxing authority from the state this year, the commissioners said they'll give their budget another look.

Staff writer Scott Butki contributed to this story.

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