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County mulls property tax alternatives

February 19, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - With Washington County residential property tax assessments up an average of 35.7 percent over the next three years, two County Commissioners said they want some relief for homeowners facing steep tax bills. Commissioner John C. Munson said he plans to push his fellow board members to lower the county's property tax rate to ease the pain of increased assessments. Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said he wants a lower cap on property tax assessment increases. A cap lessens the impact of rising assessments for the primary residence of a property owner, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. In Washington County, homeowners' assessment increases are capped at 10 percent per year, but other jurisdictions have lower annual caps, Wivell said. "We should be able to live with something less than 10 percent annually," Wivell said of county government. "There's not too many people I know who get 10 percent increases annually." Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, however, said that once tax credits, such as the Homestead Property Tax Credit, are given to property owners, assessments in Washington County will increase by an average of 8 percent per year over the next three years - less than the 10 percent cap. "We haven't reached the cap yet," Snook said. "That's the fourth lowest in the state for overall assessments." Wivell said not all property owners qualify for the Homestead Credit and will have to pay a 10 percent annual increase, which he thinks is too high. "That doesn't help the guy who's not eligible for the Homestead Credit ..." Wivell said. The Homestead Credit limits the increase in taxable assessments each year to a fixed percentage, according to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. Commissioner James F. Kercheval said that while lowering the tax rate and the assessment cap are popular positions to take, he thinks other factors should be considered before support is thrown one way or another. For example, he questioned whether across-the-board cuts were the right way to go, or whether it would be more beneficial to focus on those property owners who show a great need for assistance, such as seniors and low- and fixed-income homeowners. Kercheval also said that as Washington County continues to grow, money will have to be available to pay for school construction and other growth-related expenses. "It's real popular to come out and say that, but you have to be able to show how you're going to address (the other issues)," Kercheval said. Assessments throughout the state have increased an average of 46.6 percent over the last three years, or about 15.5 percent per year, according to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. That's the largest value increase in the state since 1980, according to the department. Munson thinks lowering the county's property tax rate by several cents to the county's constant yield tax rate would provide some relief for property owners facing higher assessments. The constant yield tax rate provides jurisdictions with the same revenue as the previous year. As assessments rise, the constant yield drops to the point that the revenue generated by the property tax stays at a constant level from one year to the next, according to the Department of Assessments and Taxation. Munson said the state tells the county annually what its constant yield tax rate should be. The county's property tax rate is nearly 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, while the constant yield tax rate is 91 cents for every $100 of assessed value, according to the Washington County Treasurer's Office. Next year's rate will be 89 cents for every $100 of assessed value, according to the Department of Assessments and Taxation. Snook said the difference between the property tax rate and the constant yield tax rate already has been going down - without the commissioners lowering the property tax rate - over the last several years. "I think we should give something back to the taxpayers because none of that money belongs to us," Munson said. "It's the taxpayers' money."

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