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In one form or another, turf tax preferable to doing nothing

January 16, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

If you've just opened your new, higher property tax assessments and feel the need of a silver lining, here are two.

First, it could have been worse. It's believed our overall assessments will increase 9.9 percent next year, but that's half of Frederick and Montgomery counties (notwithstanding state law that caps annual increases at 10 percent). If anything, the state assessors were kind - or more likely, they just haven't tried to buy property in Washington County lately.

Which leads to the second silver lining, as outlined by County Commissioner Jim Kercheval: Under Washington County's tax rate, a home that increases $100,000 in value will be assessed an additional $189 a year in tax (with caps). So it would take a generation or two of tax paying to make up for your increase in value.

As Kercheval notes, this is of little comfort to someone who has no intention of selling his home. In other words, every silver lining has a cloud.

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Another cloud is this: Skyrocketing taxes to the east will force even more people to the west. These new assessments will almost without doubt increase the waters of growth here, a tide Washington County is barely keeping its head above as it is.

Washington County could do as Frederick County, and clamp down tightly on this growth, but reduced supply drives up prices which drive up values, which drive up assessments - hence Frederick County's staggering 55 percent three-year assessment increase.

Winston Churchill was speaking of Russian policy, but he could have been referring to land-use policy when he called it "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Kercheval's take on land-use - "an incredibly complicated issue that requires a delicate balance" - will also serve. Acres and acres of pristine farmland will destroy any semblance of affordable housing in this county, while unlimited (and more affordable) housing growth will destroy our pristine farmland. Commissioners will have to answer the unanswerable question: When is a county just "desirably rural" enough?"

Three groups that will have to be balanced are the school community, the farmland-preservation community and the "if I have to sit in traffic another minute I'm going to open a vein" community.

Kercheval says the new assessments will bring an additional $6.9 million into the county treasury next year, about $2 million to $2.5 million more than the normal rate of increase. Everyone will want a piece of the pie.

Oh for the days when the county could just claim poverty. But the county is in good shape. County Administrator Rod Shoop deserves credit for commission spending guidance over the years that has boosted reserve funds and paid down debt. Consequently, there will no doubt be constituencies that see the tax windfall as "free money" and have strong opinions on how it should be spent.

Not to say they all don't have legitimate claims - the school board can point to the sprouting of temporary classrooms, motorists can point to a half-dozen bottlenecks and preservationists can point to - well, just about anywhere in the county.

Commissioners Kercheval and Bill Wivell would fund preservation in different ways. Wivell would have an annual $10 add-on tax, while Kercheval would target $10 of the new tax assessments for preservation.

Wivell's plan is preferable in the sense that it would free up more of the new revenue for schools and roads. I would happily pay $10-a-year turf tax for more tasteful and orderly growth, and I would pay another $10 to cover a senior citizen or member of the working poor who has to stretch every single dollar of income - and I bet lots of others would feel the same. On the other hand, I have zero sympathy for those who will howl to the moon about a $10 tax increase all the way to the convenience store to purchase $20 worth of lottery tickets.

The appeal of Kercheval's plan is that, at a time when property owners are feeling the sting of new assessments, it is less intrusive on those who would consider $10 to be burdensome. There is also a symmetry to use rising home values to preserve one of the things that makes those homes more valuable in the first place, that being, a rural quality of life.

Wivell said this week when he openly supported the turf tax, meager though it was, he got calls from irate citizens pronouncing his political future to be finished in this county. I would argue conversely that when a commissioner with impeccable anti-tax credentials stands up and says there is a potential crisis that needs our attention and our funding, we darn well better be paying attention.

Both Kercheval and Wivell have obviously put a lot of time, hard work and study into land use. And if it's not already here, there will soon be a time when the political careers of those who propose $10 solutions will be in far less jeopardy than those who propose no solution at all.

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