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Delegation wants excise tax reworked

January 19, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Like a boomerang, the excise tax legislation that occupied much of the Washington County Delegation's time during last year's General Assembly is back.

In the final moments of last year's session, the legislature approved a bill to allow the Washington County government to change its excise tax on new residential development from a calculation based on square footage to a flat fee.

And while the excise tax on commercial development still is based on square footage, the bill raised the cap on what the county could charge per square foot.

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This year, the Washington County Commissioners asked for legislation to let them make exemptions to the tax. But during a delegation meeting Wednesday with Assistant County Attorney Kirk Downey, Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, repeated concerns he had about how those exemptions would be made.

Downey said the county was seeking authority to make exemptions when "the imposition of the tax is outweighed by the benefits that could be garnered" by having certain businesses open or expand in Washington County - as in cases of "significant job creation," he said.

But Myers questioned how county officials would decide who gets an exemption and who doesn't, and whether the county might be opened up to legal challenges by businesses that did not get exemptions.

"Where's the benchmark?" he asked. "How fair is it to other businesses that have been (in the county) for years and want to expand?" He especially was concerned that small businesses would be left out.

Granting an exemption would be "a political call" for the commissioners, Downey conceded, but he said he had not researched legal issues that might be involved. He added that the commissioners might have other options than "blanket exemptions."

He assured Myers that the commissioners would have the same authority to grant exemptions to small businesses.

But that didn't erase Myers' objections.

"How do you pick and choose?" he asked. "When do you set precedents?"

Downey said he assumed the Economic Development Commission would make recommendations about how the exemptions would be granted.

"The state does this every day with exemptions, waivers and credits," said Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Allegany, adding that applicants go through a public process to get the waivers. Setting specific formulas for granting an exemption "makes it difficult to administer," he said.

Myers countered that he had heard from owners of small businesses who were offended by the proposal.

"So we don't do it at all?" Weldon asked.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, cautioned that if Washington County doesn't allow exemptions, other jurisdictions would.

The delegation opted to continue discussion of the exemption at their meeting next week, when they also will talk further about the county's request for a bill to let county officials levy fines for violating various codes and ordinances.

Specifically, the county wants authority to issue civil citations for violations of weed control, Health Department violations and electrical, plumbing, building and mechanical code violations.

Downey said the measure would provide an alternative to criminal charges, "dragging people into Circuit Court.

"It would decrease the need for protracted litigation," he said.

But Myers had reservations about that request, too, and wanted more information about how those citations would be issued.

Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he had fielded concerns from constituents about the request as well, and had asked them to outline for the delegation their objections to it.

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