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A second chance on taxes

March 17, 2006

Thanks to some members of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee who've had second thoughts about imposing local tax limits at the state level, Washington County will get a second chance to cap property tax assessments. Our advice: Don't blow it.

Washington County's General Assembly delegation wrote a bill to drop the rate at which new property assessments can be phased in for tax purposes from 10 percent - the highest the law allows - to 5 percent.

The delegation did this because after the Washington County Commissioners promised state lawmakers they would study the effect of rising property tax assessments on the local population, nothing much got done.

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

In February, we urged that the two bodies to agree, because the county government is beginning its budget reviews and all the estimates have been done based on the 10 percent cap being in place.

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For that reason, Shank said, the commissioners might not be able to agree on the cap prior to the end of the 2006 session, set for April 10. And so Shank isn't withdrawing his bill.

The commissioners might feel they are being fiscally responsible, but the county has just experienced a record increase in assessments that was unforeseen. The revenue it will yield certainly would provide a chance to catch up on some long-delayed projects, but it would also put the squeeze on any number of property owners whose pay hasn't kept pace with rising property values.

We recommend the commissioners act now and reduce the tax cap. It isn't as though they have much choice, but they would be able to keep the power to set tax rates locally. That's about all they can hope to salvage from a mess of their own making.

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