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Lawmakers respond to letter from county on panel plan

March 11, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - To borrow a line from "Cool Hand Luke," what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

At least that's how the chairman of the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly sees the county commissioners' decision this week to ask a House committee chairwoman to kill a delegation bill to form a commission to review property tax assessments within the county.

Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank said Thursday he discussed his "concerns about communication issues" with Commissioners' President Gregory I. Snook. The delegation has been accommodating with the commissioners on other issues, particularly their request for legislation revising the county's building excise tax on new development, Shank said.

If the commissioners don't like the property assessment bill, Shank said the county does want the bill to revise its excise tax, and the delegation can include some of the assessment bill's provisions as conditions for revising the excise tax.

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The commissioners on Tuesday wrote to Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson asking her not to support the assessment commission bill in committee. Her committee conducted a hearing on the bill March 1, and can kill the bill, amend it, or send it to the full House of Delegates for a vote.

"As a Board, we agree that this proposed legislation enters into matters that are to be handled at the local level," the commissioners' letter says, "specifically by the Board of County Commissioners."

Shank said the commissioners have some valid concerns. But he said he had concerns as well, and so do constituents who've been contacting delegation members because they're afraid their property taxes will be so high they can't afford to keep their homes.

"I can't speak for the delegation, but I feel that there is a link between the new growth the county is allowing and the assessment increases." That new growth, he said, "is the prime reason they need the excise tax."

"If we're about to give them enabling authority for close to $20 million in new revenue, I want to see how the commissioners intend to deal with the assessments."

Shank said he's worried the excise tax will harm affordable housing in the county. The proposed revision will raise the limit of what the county can charge for new commercial development to $5 per square foot, and convert the square-footage calculation of the excise tax for residential development to a flat fee of up to $13,000 per unit.

Shank said he suggested to Snook that a way to satisfy the delegation was to combine provisions from the assessment commission proposal with the excise tax bill.

Shank said he wants the commissioners to "investigate seriously the concerns about property taxes and affordable housing," and conduct a public hearing.

Implementing that as part of the excise tax legislation, which would become effective July 1 if approved, would force the county to include a plan for dealing with those issues as part of their budget process this spring, Shank said.

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