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Talking taxes

January 08, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN -

If there was a theme to the annual pre-session meeting between lawmakers and the public Saturday, it was pensions, prisons and property taxes.

And not necessarily in that order.

For about 2 1/2 hours Saturday at South Hagerstown High School, the Washington County Delegation to the General Assembly listened while their constituents talked.

And one of the things they talked about most was taxes.

Most acknowledged that taxes were a fact of life. But double-digit increases in their property assessments had many of Saturday's speakers seeing red.

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"When I bought my little house out on Broadfording Road, I thought it was mine," Don Hovermale said. Because of rising taxes, he said, "I'm afraid the state will own it and I'll have to leave."

"We get taxed at the grocery store, we get taxed at the gas station, we get taxed everywhere we go," Donald Metz added. But property taxes, he said, "are just going way, way out of sight. They are a burden to everybody ... we have to do something to put our property taxes back in line. There is a limit to the increases that most of us can stand."

Williamsport Councilman Earle R. Pereschuk Sr. told the legislators that in the latest assessment, "my land tripled and my buildings doubled." The higher assessments, he said, had him wondering, "Am I going to be able to afford to retire?"

Diane Eves of Hagerstown, who with two others formed The Alliance for Reasonable Taxation last year, said the need for tax relief is obvious, considering what she called "outrageous assessments." She noted that when the delegation agreed to last year's revision of the county's excise tax on new development, the bill stipulated that the county government do a study on the impact various forms of tax relief, including a cap on assessments, would have on revenue.

"The county did not comply with the requirement to look at tax relief," Eves said.

During last year's excise tax discussion, delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, insisted the county investigate those issues and study affordable housing as a stipulation for the revision. Originally, he wanted the county to report to the lawmakers before charging the revised tax. County officials balked because the time frame would prevent them from collecting the tax for the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2005.

Shank relented, and dropped the requirement that the county report first because of "a commitment from the city (of Hagerstown) and the county to conduct a thorough report by Nov. 1 (2005) on issues we were concerned about," he said on March 22.

On Saturday, Shank said he hadn't yet seen a report.

Reached at home Saturday night, Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said when the county did its affordable housing study - also required in last year's excise tax bill - county officials spoke with Ron Bowers, administrator of Maryland's Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, Washington County Treasurer Todd Hershey and others for what he called a "workshop" session on the effect of assessments.

Shoop said that while the affordable housing report "talks a little bit about the increase," he didn't know whether those efforts met the criteria of the bill.

In any event, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, assured the audience Saturday that property assessments would be "a subject of more than passing interest in the General Assembly."

Pensions for state employees were on the minds of a number of teachers and correctional officers Saturday. The Maryland State Teachers Association is in the middle of a major push to get pension reforms from the General Assembly this year, and MSTA representative Scott Miller was on hand Saturday to tell the delegation that pension reform is necessary "to keep quality teachers."

Paula Moore, Washington County's Teacher of the Year for 2005, urged the legislators to enhance pensions, as did Jody Spickler, who begged the delegation to "please lobby to pass and fund a pension bill."

Delegation members have said pension reform is necessary this year, but likely would mean state employees will have to contribute more to their pension fund.

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