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Washington County lawmakers cast votes to seek legislation for a pair of new taxes

January 30, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County lawmakers voted Wednesday to seek legislation authorizing two new taxes in Washington County and repealing a third.

If it passes the Maryland General Assembly this year, the law would allow the Washington County Commissioners to collect a real estate transfer tax if they also collect an excise tax on new construction.

The law would revoke the commissioners' power to charge impact fees on new development. The commissioners have not used impact fees, saying there are too many restrictions on how the money must be spent for the tax to be useful.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he came up with the tax plan to accommodate the Washington County Commissioners' request for greater taxing authority.

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The commissioners initially supported a transfer tax, but they endorsed Shank's proposal Tuesday.

Shank said he and other lawmakers felt that a transfer tax alone would unfairly burden people who are buying and selling property in the county.

"We don't want to target any one sector to bear the brunt," he said.

Right now, the only way the county can raise more money is by increasing property taxes or income taxes.

Excise taxes alone would not raise enough money to solve the county's budget problems because of insufficient growth. But if growth increases dramatically, it will bring in the money needed to deal with those problems, Shank said.

Shank said he communicated with the commissioners, homebuilders, real estate agents and the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County over the weekend to forge a compromise proposal. Most of the contact was through e-mail, he said.

For the first four years, the transfer tax would be capped at .5 percent and the excise tax would be capped at $1 per square foot. At most, the two taxes would raise an estimated $5 million next year.

Under the proposal, the money could be used to renovate schools, improve public safety, preserve farmland, reduce the county's debt and build roads, he said.

Before any new taxes were enacted, the Washington County Commissioners would have to go through a public hearing process. They have discussed building in exemptions for first-time home buyers and senior citizens.

"It's the County Commissioners that's going to take the heat," said Sen. John Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington.

Members of the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly voted 7-1 to approve Shank's proposal. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/ Washington, cast the dissenting vote because it's a tax increase.

By adopting Shank's proposal, lawmakers effectively shot down Commissioner William Wivell's agricultural land preservation program.

Wivell had proposed a $10 surcharge on property tax bills to raise money for the program.

"Some of us feel if we're going to do an excise tax and transfer tax, that would make this unnecessary," Shank said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, who drove to Annapolis for the early-morning meeting, thanked lawmakers for their help.

"We appreciate you all working with us in these difficult times. I assure you we'll do the best we can. We still have a long road to go," he said.

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