One reader's question: Is tax rebate plan fair?

May 03, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

After the Washington County Commissioners decided last week to give more than 30,000 residential property owners a $150 tax rebate, I received an e-mail from a reader who questioned the fairness of the arrangement.

His argument went like this: If one property owner paid $2,000 in property taxes and another paid $1,000, why should both get the same rebate?

And, my reader asked, if the $5 million the commissioners have pledged toward this effort is (for example) 4 percent of total property tax collections, shouldn't each homeowner get 4 percent of his or her property taxes rebated?

One possible reason to go with the flat rebate is that it would be too complicated to do all those calculations for a percentage rebate.


Not so, said County Treasurer Todd Hershey, who said that percentage rates could have been calculated, if that's the way the commissioners had decided to go.

"I see that as doable. I don't see that as not doable," he said.

Hershey said he did advise the commissioners against using a tax credit, because so many homeowners have mortgage escrow accounts set up to pay their property taxes.

A credit would have gone straight into those escrow accounts, forcing homeowners who wanted the cash to deal with their mortgage company, Hershey said.

Hershey said he advised the commissioners to just cut the tax rate and the property tax cap, which limits how much assessments can rise each year for tax purposes.

In March, the commissioners cut the tax cap from 10 percent to 5 percent, but later decided on a rebate instead of a tax cut, based on the advice of a consultant, who said a tax rate cut might hurt the county's bond rating and necessitate a future tax increase.

"They're trying to reward those who own their own homes," Hershey said, adding that "lowering the tax rate would do that with zero administrative impact."

There is a one fairness issue with the rebate, Hershey said. It benefits people who own property as of July 1, he said, even if they've never paid a property tax bill here previously.

For example, he said, if someone from another state purchases a county home on June 15, he or she would be eligible for the rebate, even though they've never paid the tax previously.

"If you build a house now, you'll get a check, based on the July 1 data," he said.

But as helpful as Hershey was, it was another reader who clarified the issue for me, saying that for homeowners whose assessment is below the median price of a home - now at $250,000 - the rebate would be a better deal than a 4 cent tax reduction.

Those with higher assessments don't make out as well, my reader said, but added that those with more expensive properties are better able to deal with it than folks with lower incomes.

Isn't it interesting that an all-Republican board came up with a plan that benefits lower-income homeowners at the expense of those on the higher end? Yes, it was a 3-2 vote, but I doubt that the dissenters will decline to say "you're welcome" if someone thanks them for the rebate.

As someone who has hauled my own family's trash to a waste transfer station or the main landfill for 25 years, the fee increase that will jump the cost of my annual sticker to $130 is not welcome.

But I'm more worried about recent reports about the Forty West Landfill, which opened five years ago and had a life expectancy of 80 years then. Now, because volume has increased so much, county officials say it might only last 39 years.

As a weekly observer of the waste stream, here's my two cents: Too much recyclable material, mostly cardboard, is going into the dumpsters. How tough is it to break those boxes down and put them in a recycling bin?

Also, it's hard to believe that those who come in with trucks overflowing with garbage bags are producing all of that themselves. More likely, they're hauling for friends or relatives who aren't paying.

My suggestion: Follow the approach of Waynesboro, Pa., where residents are allowed to set out three 32-gallon containers per week. If they want to set out more, they pay $1 a bag for stickers.

I'll bet the people who don't bother about recycling would get on board quickly if they had to pay a few extra bucks for not sorting their trash. And remember, this is not only a matter of saving money, but of preserving a county resource - and tax dollars - for as long as possible.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

The Herald-Mail Articles