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Cancel excise tax for HHA

October 18, 2003

The Washington County Commissioners should reconsider their decision not to waive $350,000 in excise taxes for the Hagerstown Housing Authority.

Not only is the county board's logic in levying the fee flawed, but doing so could make it more difficult for HHA to provide services to existing tenants.

The idea behind the excise tax is sound - to have developers share in the cost of providing necessary services like streets and schools.

But the HHA project for which the county is seeking is Gateway Crossing in Hagerstown's West End, a project which is replacing, among other dwellings, the West View Homes public housing project.

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West View's 210 homes have been demolished, so HHA should at least get credit for those, since the units that replace them won't add to the number of total dwellings, but only replace those that were torn down.

Some of the commissioners have argued that if HHA gets an exemption for its units, other nonprofits will seek the same thing.

No doubt, but Habitat for Humanity and other housing providers aren't putting up large developments, but a few houses at a time for people who couldn't otherwise afford their own homes. If the commissioners agree that tax policy should encourage positive behavior and discourage negative behavior, then excusing nonprofit housing providers from this tax seems like a good idea.

Two other points are relevant. This project was planned before the excise tax was enacted. To collect it now, after all the financing details have been worked out, is unfair. Again, we're talking about replacements for units that have been torn down, not new construction on virgin ground.

But the best reason to excuse HHA from this tax is that the housing agency has already lost a $350,000 drug-abatement grant. The grant not only paid for programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, but also provided cash to allow Hagerstown police to spend extra time keeping drugs out of public housing.

HHA is already scrambling to close the gap left by the loss of those funds, so that two valuable programs aren't lost. That's one reason HHA's director Ted Shankle proposed to raise funds by buying, renovating and reselling city rental properties.

HHA is a convenient target because compared to most providers of low-income housing it has a large budget. But while HHA may have more money than most, it also has more responsibilities. To keep children occupied and drugs out of public housing, cancel this charge.

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