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Do the commissioners back idea of tax relief?

January 27, 2006

Washington County Commissioners Greg Snook and Jim Kercheval said this week that their colleague John Munson's call for property-tax relief is premature.

Once the county has a better picture of expected revenues and expenses, Snook and Kercheval said, then the county board can look at tax relief. Munson also needs to provide details of any plan, they said.

We agree that it would not be good business practice to commit to a tax cut without first looking at budget projections. But the commissioners could endorse the idea of tax relief now and announce that they'll be working toward making it happen.

It is clear that something has to be done, because property values - and taxes - are rising faster than wages in this area.

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Ron Bowers, the state's Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board administrator, said recently that the most-recent county property assessments have risen 58.6 percent.

But because there's a 10 percent annual cap, assessments can rise no more than 30 percent over three years.

In his interview with The Herald-Mail's Tara Reilly, Bowers noted that the 10 percent cap is the highest allowed under state law.

Nearby Frederick County has a 5 percent annual cap, Bowers said, which would hold the assessment increases there to 15 percent over three years - about half Washington County's increase with no change in the cap.

According to the State Department of Assessment and Taxations' report issued ion July 2005, Frederick County has an assessable base more than three times as large as Washington County's, so it might be easier for officials there to live with a 5 percent cap.

Washington County will also have to play catch-up on schools, roads and other infrastructure needed to deal with a surge in the population. That means relief must be balanced with the need to provide essential services.

That said, if 14 counties have lower assessment caps than Washington County, it would seem that other local governments have found ways to meet their revenue needs without taxing residents at the maximum rate.

Snook said he'd like to see details of Munson's plan before committing to it. So would we, but before his colleagues ask Munson to do all that work, they need to pledge that they support the idea of tax relief and will seriously consider whatever plan he comes up with.

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