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County must get serious on taxes

February 18, 2006

County must get serious on taxes



To the editor:



Early last year, House Bill 1272 stipulated that the Washington County Commissioners were to address the assessment increases and possible tax relief measures (including an assessment cap) by Nov. 1.

They failed to do so, other than a very brief "workshop" during their regular meeting on May 24 at which Ron Bowers, Tim O'Rourke and Todd Hershey each addressed an aspect of the problem. I believe the whole presentation lasted about 30 minutes. Apparently, tax relief was not a priority with the commissioners, as nothing else ensued.

In July, three of us citizens took the advice of Commissioner Bill Wivell (who has strongly supported us since then) and embraced the task of pursuing the needed relief through a grassroots movement.

In September, at Del. Chris Shank's request, the three of us met with him about the need for property tax relief in Washington County. He then requested from Legislative Services an analysis of two possible relief options and their impact on Washington County's revenue.

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During the summer and fall, our tax relief effort was gathering support and accrued approximately 200 supporters by December. It picked up considerable steam when the new assessments were received by residents of the southern and western parts of the county, who were finding out what the rest of us were already worked up about last year.

In early January, at another meeting with Shank, he advised us that the analysis was complete and, given the soundness of Washington County's projected income, the delegation would consider the options.

Later that week, the delegates had their annual hearing at South High, and the tax relief supporters turned out in force. Supporters also responded to the delegates with e-mails and phone calls.

Following that meeting, Commissioner John Munson also solicited calls and e-mails to the commissioners.

The delegation responded to the show of support and requested that the commissioners attend a hearing on tax relief in Annapolis on Thursday, Feb. 2. Commissioners Jim Kercheval, Munson and Wivell attended.

Following that hearing, the delegation, noting that the commissioners had not acted of their own accord, undertook to propose a bill to reduce the assessment cap to 5 percent, as Frederick County had done last year. Five other counties also lowered their assessment caps last year.

The cap will provide a more permanent solution than will the rebate, although I believe the rebate is necessary and hopefully will be distributed with wisdom. The implementation of the constant yield tax rate also should be seriously considered, but again, it is not as durable as the assessment cap, as it is something which is implemented on a yearly basis.

At any point during the past year, the commissioners could have acted on their own to put in place any of the above tax-relief measures, including the one the delegates have now undertaken.

Unfortunately, the most attractive option, the Homestead Deduction, a flat exemption from the assessed value of a property, which would put the greatest benefit where it is most needed, although passed by the Washington, D.C., council last year as part of its tax relief package (and used in other states), is unconstitutional in Maryland.

The assessment cap is a start, we are grateful to the delegation for choosing to step in.

More relief is needed, including a local component to the Homestead Tax Credit and some form of relief for renters (many of whom are on fixed incomes).

The battle is not over, and judging from commissioner comments in the article that appeared in the Feb. 9 Herald-Mail, it will be a tough one.

Diane Eves

Alliance for Reasonable Taxation

Hagerstown

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