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Local lawmakers vote for a lower assessment cap

February 09, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER and TARA REILLY

ANNAPOLIS

tammyb@herald-mail.com

tarar@herald-mail.com

In response to an outpouring of complaints from residents about soaring property taxes, Washington County legislators voted unanimously Wednesday morning to draft legislation to lower the county's property assessment cap from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Washington County's cap is one of the highest in the state. By comparison, Anne Arundel County's cap is 2 percent, Carroll County's is 7 percent, Prince George's County's is 3 percent and Garrett County's is 5 percent.

The Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly began targeting property taxes last year. In the bill to revise the county's excise tax on new development, they required county officials to study the effects of property tax assessment caps and other options on the county's revenues.

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Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank said last week he was "disappointed the county did not take seriously our request."

This week, the lawmakers took matters into their own hands.

"Last week, I said it was becoming increasingly difficult for Washington Countians to live in Washington County," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington. Noting the county projected a surplus this year, Munson said that by lowering the cap, "we're not hobbling the county commissioners from running the county. I think this is the direction we need to go."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said by phone Wednesday he didn't know the delegation was planning to submit the bill.

"I would've thought that they would've at least given me a courtesy call," Snook said.

Snook said he can support reducing the assessment cap, but "we'll just have to make some major cuts and go from there."

He said he hopes lowering the cap is done in a way that doesn't harm the county.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said lowering the cap to 5 percent probably would reduce the county's revenue by $1 million to $2 million.

He said that wouldn't cause much of an impact on the county's budget.

"I would imagine that revenues are fairly healthy," he said.

Reducing the cap would more likely reduce the county's revenues by nearly $3.8 million in fiscal year 2008, according to estimates by policy analyst Michael D. Sanelli in the Department of Legislative Services.

Wivell said he knew the delegation was moving toward reducing the cap, which he favors.

"I think it's long overdue," Wivell said.

Commissioner John C. Munson took credit for the delegation's action.

"I love it. That would not have happened if it had not been for me," Munson said.

Munson has publicly supported lowering the assessment cap and reducing the county's property tax rate. Late last month, he asked county residents to call, and to send e-mail and letters to the commissioners about increasing assessments and taxes.

"We need the tax relief in the county, not for one, not for two, but for all," Munson said.

Munson said he thought the commissioners were dragging their feet on providing the relief and applauded the delegation for the bill.

"They took the bull by the horns, and I'm certainly glad they did," he said.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said the delegation overstepped its boundaries by agreeing to draft the bill.

"The state should (handle) state issues. That's what's really disturbing to me about them," he said.

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