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Rebates might not be legal

March 03, 2006|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

A plan to send rebate checks to Washington County property owners might not be legal, county officials said Thursday.

In September 2005 and January 2006, the County Commissioners unanimously endorsed the idea of issuing refunds to taxpayers to help offset the cost of rising property assessments.

The projected rebate was $100.

Commissioner John C. Munson said he assumed county staff would have checked into the legality of issuing refund checks before now.

"You would think so, but I am not aware of (that having been done)," Munson said. "Somebody should have approached (County Attorney Richard Douglas) and asked him about that."

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Munson and Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said Thursday that Douglas told them the county might not be allowed to issue the refund checks without enabling legislation from the Maryland General Assembly.

"The question now is: What are we going to do now? That's our dilemma," Nipps said.

Douglas, when reached by telephone Thursday, declined to say what he had told the commissioners because of attorney-client privilege.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said Thursday that while Douglas informed the County Commissioners by e-mail that the rebate plan might not legal, he believes the county still could move forward with the proposal by issuing credits on taxpayers' bills.

He pointed out that Frederick County issued $100 credits last year.

"If ours is in violation of state law, theirs certainly was in violation of state law," Wivell said.

Frederick County Director of Treasury Mary Christine Jackman confirmed the county issued $100 credits last year, but said enabling legislation for the county had been passed.

An attorney with the state Department of Legislative Services said he was not familiar with the details of what Washington County is considering. He said he thinks the county would need specific enabling legislation to offer either tax credits or rebates to county property owners. He said he was not aware of any specific legislation which would allow the county to do either.

Neither Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook nor Commissioner James F. Kercheval said they were aware that Douglas had raised questions about the legality of the rebates.

"I guess we certainly assumed we had the authority to do it. I guess we always assumed we had the authority to raise the taxes, we had the authority to give the money back," Snook said.

According to County Administrator Rod Shoop, the county is researching several components of the rebate proposal, including whether to actually mail checks to taxpayers or issue credits toward their property tax bills.

"We're staffing it right now, doing the proper research," Shoop said. "We still have a lot of work to do for this."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said there is a Washington County delegation bill to lower the tax cap on assessments from 10 percent to 5 percent, with an amendment which would give the county some authority to grant limited tax credits, but the bill would carry a limited window for implementation.

Staff writers Tamela Baker and Karen Hanna contributed to this story.

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