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Delegation's top job in 2008: Fix the county's excise tax

December 04, 2007

Almost lost in the discussion over who would attend this year's pre-legislative meetings were the proposals that the Washington County Commissioners want to see enacted during Maryland's 2008 General Assembly session.

Those proposals are more important than who attends which meeting - as long as the entire delegation is ready to fight for the legislation this area needs.

The top priority in 2008 must be the revision of the county's excise tax.

It's taken five years of fits and starts to get to this point, but the housing slump came along at the right moment to provide enough time to get it right. We hope.

Some background: The excise tax is levied on new single- and multi-family homes to provide cash for construction of infrastructure, including schools, needed to deal with all of this new development.

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Right now, the county charges a $13,000 fee for single-family homes in developments with 25 or fewer homes. Multifamily homes are charged $15,500 per unit, with fees doubling if the subdivision exceeds 25 units.

The tax was based on square footage until two years ago, when it was changed to a flat fee, except for homes of less than 1,500 square feet, for which the fee is now $1 a square foot.

Exemptions in the ordinance, plus a slowdown in home sales, led to an $11 million shortfall for the current fiscal year.

Because contracts had already been awarded for projects that depended on that money, the commissioners were forced to take $5.2 million from the FY 2006 surplus.

Washington County's state lawmakers wanted a task force to study the fee and recommend changes. It recommended a fee of $2 per square foot, which the commissioners bumped up to $3 per square foot.

Is that enough? We urge the delegation have the General Assembly's number-crunchers analyze the proposal and make sure, before it is passed, that it will provide sufficient revenue for local needs, including school construction.

The commissioners' other priorities include:

· Raising the amount of contracts that need to be bid from $25,000 to $50,000. The smaller amount is the price of a new pick-up truck; it doesn't make sense to spend staff time on such a small bid.

· Requiring organizations that hold large events to notify the Washington County Sheriff's Department in advance. Makes sense; if extra deputies are needed, the sheriff should know ahead of time.

· Prohibiting parking of tractor-trailers on suburban, residential streets. It depends on how long we're talking about. A day or two is OK, several months is not.

· Beefing up the county's sidewalk ordinance, to make it easier to enforce the rule that property owners must maintain walks abutting their property. Are there really a lot of sidewalk scofflaws out there, and if so, what would the new penalties be? Give us more information, please.

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