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Why study assessments? Law already provides fix

February 11, 2005

Faced with complaints from property owners stunned by the latest wave of property-tax assessments, Washington County's Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly decided to do what government seems to do best - appoint a commission to study the problem.

This will be a massive waste of time. There are already adequate remedies in the law to deal with this situation.

If the delegation is trying to convince the public that it is possible to repeal the law of supply and demand, or intimidate the commissioners into holding down taxes, we understand that.

We don't approve, but we understand. But the best remedy for rising property taxes is not a commission, but a decision by the County Commissioners to lower the tax rate to compensate for higher assessments.

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About 18,000 property reassessment notices were sent to Washington County property owners in December. Since the last valuation in 2002, local homes' assessments have increased by an average of 36 percent.

Those new, higher amounts are phased in at the rate of 10 percent a year. According to the Department of Assessments and Taxation, that phase-in rate is the maximum. It can be set to a lower percentage, if the county government chooses to do so.

The county government can also choose to enact the Constant Yield Tax Rate, or CYTR.

Simply stated, the CYTR is a way to balance rising assessments by lowering the tax rate so that even if property values rise, homeowners still pay the same amount as they did the previous year.

Will that happen? We doubt it, because of the need for new schools, roads and other infrastructure. The county government may adjust the rate downward a bit, but with all these needs, the commissioners won't settle for getting no more revenue than they got last year.

The concern expressed by state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, about the need for affordable housing is welcome, coming so soon after a similar statement by Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

But the law of supply and demand, in which a larger number of buyers drives up home prices, won't be repealed by studying assessments.

Builders must have some incentives to erect more affordable units. If this commission can add that item to its agenda, it would justify all the time its members are likely to put into it.

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