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Delegation, county board need to make a fresh start

February 14, 2006

If you make a promise to Washington County's General Assembly delegation, you had better keep it.

That's the message that the county's state lawmakers sent to the County Commissioners last week when they cut the cap on the phase-in of new assessments for tax purposes from 10 percent annually to 5 percent.

Cutting the cap without consulting the commissioners on how it will affect the next budget isn't a good way to govern, but the county board should have seen this coming.

After a quick upturn in the number of new county residents, the commissioners decided that they needed an amendment to the excise tax law that would allow them to collect additional revenue on new construction.

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OK, said the delegation, but on one condition: The county must study the impact of rising property assessments. The study would look at how rising property taxes would impact so-called work-force housing, senior citizens and urban revitalization.

The commissioners were also directed to come up with a set of options for reducing the burden of property taxes on county taxpayers.

But when the commissioners and the delegation met Jan. 2, state lawmakers expressed disappointment that except for the work-force housing issue, it appeared that little research had been done.

Instead of offering excuses, Commissioners Vice President William Wivell admitted that not much had been done.

"I don't think we gave it the look-see it deserved," Wivell said. "We didn't do a thorough analysis."

On Feb. 8, the delegation reacted, voting unanimously to draft legislation that would cut the annual cap from its current 10 percent to 5 percent.

The cap limits the rate at which new, higher property assessments are phased in for tax purposes. If the assessment on a house increases by 50 percent, the current 10 percent cap means that new figure is phased in at 10 percent a year over three years.

In three years, the assessment (for tax purposes) would go up by 30 percent. With a 5 percent cap, the increase over three years would be limited to 15 percent.

In other words, instead of a 30 percent increase in the taxable part of the assessment, under the 5 percent cap, it would be just half of that.

It's a move that will play well in an election year, but it's really not the way government should be run.

Why not? Because, given that Commissioners President Greg Snook complained that he hadn't received so much as a courtesy call on the issue, we doubt that delegation members considered the county's budget before they made their decision.

Given the recent run-up in assessments, we don't doubt that the county has plenty of revenue. But this is not governing based on analysis of the facts, but action based on emotion instead.

Did the commissioners provoke the delegation with their lack of action on the assessment study? Yes, but the response to that nonperformance shouldn't be a decision to start micromanaging the county government.

Both bodies needs to step back and decide how they can move forward as partners, which should include keeping their promises to each other.

The commissioners should acknowledge their mistake and apologize for not following through on the study.

Then the delegation should acknowledge that setting the tax rate is the county board's job, and if its members don't do it to citizens' satisfaction, then voters can find some new commissioners who will.

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