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County wants excise tax cap removed

December 17, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Growth and development in Washington County are driving local officials to seek a revision to the county's building excise tax to raise more money to pay for increased demands on the county's infrastructure.

There currently is a ceiling of $1 per square foot of construction on the excise tax, enacted in accordance with the Washington County Growth Management Act of 2003. That legislation from the Maryland General Assembly allowed the county to impose the tax and set the $1 per square foot cap through fiscal year 2008. The county has been charging 50 cents per square foot and planned to raise the tax to 75 cents for fiscal year 2006, which begins July 1, 2005.

On Thursday, the Washington County Commissioners, backed by the Hagerstown City Council, asked the county's Delegation to the General Assembly to remove the cap during the upcoming legislative session.

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The reason, according to Commissioner James F. Kercheval, is that the combined revenues from the excise tax and the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance - which charges additional fees on development in areas where schools are at 85 percent capacity - still wouldn't be enough to pay for needed school and road construction.

"Under the current structure, we'd still be about $50 million short in six years" for school construction alone, Kercheval told the lawmakers.

An additional problem is that the APFO charges can only be collected outside the county's municipalities, whereas the excise tax is applied countywide. If the ceiling on the excise tax were lifted, Kercheval reasoned, the APFO charges could be reduced or eliminated.

The commissioners voted earlier this month to raise the school APFO fee to $8,500 for a single-family dwelling. Developers of projects in the Maugansville and Robinwood corridors are paying additional APFO fees for road construction.

While a final fee structure has not been set, Kercheval said he wants a flat fee rather than a square-foot calculation.

"We're trying to make it flat and simple," he said, adding that the final legislation should include an escalator clause that allows the commissioners to adjust the tax for inflation.

Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank asked whether the commissioners had a base figure in mind. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the commissioners wanted some flexibility built into the fee structure for the county's municipalities.

Hagerstown Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said the city might consider implementing impact fees beyond the excise tax, depending on the outcome of a study on the impact of development on the cost of police protection and road construction. The city last spring commissioned the study to be done by Bethesda, Md.-based Tischler & Associates.

Kercheval suggested a flat fee that would include money dedicated mainly for schools, but also for roads, libraries, emergency services and parks.

Metzner and Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said approval of the excise tax request was the city's priority legislative request for this year.

The commissioners said they hoped to have more information in time for a public meeting the delegation has scheduled for Jan. 8.

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