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County is urged to lower rate cap

March 22, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

Local legislators say they'll back down from pending state legislation to lower the county's tax rate cap if the Washington County Commissioners act next week to lower it themselves.

The Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly last month introduced the bill, which would lower the county's property tax cap from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank said Tuesday that because "the commissioners had made it quite clear they intend to reduce the cap next week," the delegation had agreed to amend the tax cap bill to remove the mandate, and give the county government authority to issue tax rebates for this year.

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Shank said the legislators agreed to have the amendments drafted "having confidence (the commissioners) will follow through, we will amend the bill to enable them to issue a tax credit this year."

But if the commissioners don't act, he said, "all bets are off."

"If it doesn't happen, we will re-evaluate next week," Shank said, adding that the delegation could amend the bill again to force action.

But Shank said he'd prefer to avoid forcing the issue.

"We want them to act on their own," he said. "We want them to act on their own."

The county may raise the tax rate on property assessment up to 10 percent per year. Washington County's cap is one of the highest in the state. By comparison, Anne Arundel's cap is 2 percent, Carroll County's is 7 percent, Prince George's is 3 percent and Garrett County's is 5 percent.

Escalating property taxes have proved a sore point across the state in this election year, and nearly 100 bills to provide relief have been filed in this year's General Assembly. While the Washington County bill is still alive, two other local bills to force county governments to lower tax caps have gotten unfavorable votes by the House Ways and Means Committee. Those bills pertained to Carroll and Cecil counties.

On Tuesday, the committee heard a statewide bill to change the property assessment cycle from three years to four. Sponsored by two Anne Arundel County Republicans, the bill would relieve both taxpayers and assessors, according to lead sponsor Del. Terry Gilleland.

"As we know, the tax rate is only half the equation," he told the committee. Lengthening the assessment cycle would soften the blow by raising tax bills by 25 percent per year rather than 33 percent, and "improve the integrity of the assessment process" by giving assessors another year to visit properties, he said.

But he acknowledged that the bill comes with a huge price tag - lengthening the cycle would cost the state more than $35 million in the first year, and would cost local governments throughout the state an aggregate $221.6 million in the same year.

"I know it's a big-ticket item," said co-sponsor David Boschert, "but who are we here for? It's an issue that hits us all in the pocketbook once a year."

Because the initial cost to local government is so high, the Maryland Association of Counties opposes the bill. MACO Legislative Director Michael Sanderson told the committee that Maryland already provides a number of tax credits, and lengthening the assessment process would result in cuts to services - or in local governments raising tax rates to make up for the loss.

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