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Looking out for the middle class

April 06, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

As Washington County begins studying rising property assessments and ways to make housing more affordable for low-income residents and senior citizens, some County Commissioners warned Tuesday that middle-income earners shouldn't be left out of the mix.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell and Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said the middle class also are struggling to keep up with climbing housing costs.

"It's nice to talk about senior citizens and the low-income folks, but the more you address these types of issues, you're driving the middle class out ...," Wivell said.

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"I think Bill (Wivell) has a very valid concern for middle-income folks," Nipps said. "What happens to the other families that just kind of get stuck there?"

The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation has said Washington County residential property tax assessments will increase by 35.7 percent over the next three years, meaning taxpayers likely are facing higher property tax bills.

The commissioners, in return for state approval of a flat building excise tax, will be required to study the impact of county growth on the rising assessments, the impact of the county's property tax rate and excise tax on the availability of low-cost housing for seniors and other affordable housing-related issues.

The commissioners asked the state for enabling legislation to convert the excise tax from its current square-footage calculation for residential development to a flat fee not to exceed $13,000 per single-family housing unit.

The money from the excise tax is to pay for new roads, schools and other infrastructure needs resulting from growth. Municipalities within the county that adopt Adequate Public Facility Ordinances would be permitted to keep part of the money collected from the tax for growth-related capital projects within their jurisdictions.

Some of the options the county will consider to ease the pain of rising property assessments include whether to place a cap on the assessments, expand the county's Homestead Tax credit and provide a tax credit program for senior citizens.

Commissioner John C. Munson said he thought the commissioners should help residents struggling to find affordable housing by creating a small, county-owned, low-cost housing development, but the suggestion drew little discussion at the meeting.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook suggested that the commissioners first educate themselves on the issues and begin discussing possible candidates for a work force housing task force.

Creating the task force, which will draft affordable housing recommendations for the commissioners, was one of the county's goals for 2005.

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