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Doubts remain about new Washington County tax structure

November 17, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- Hagerstown City Council members on Tuesday asked for more time to study and absorb a new county tax system.

The Washington County Commissioners last week approved a policy eliminating double taxation: Municipal residents now pay for county services -- such as police, parks and roads -- already provided by their municipality.

The issue has long bothered city officials, but they weren't ready to endorse the new structure Tuesday.

"This is happening very quickly and it's substantial change," Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said at a joint city-county meeting.

Each year, the county has given a rebate to municipalities for duplicated services. Now, starting in fiscal year 2011, the county plans to lower taxes for municipal residents, costing the county at least $600,000.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said county taxes for those residents would drop and municipal taxes possibly rise -- to recoup lost rebate revenue -- but the net effect would be lower taxes.

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Councilman Lewis C. Metzner wondered how residents could pay less in taxes yet get the same services.

"That just sounds like smoke and mirrors to me," he said.

After the meeting, Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire backed Kercheval: Municipal residents wouldn't be taxed twice for the same services, so they'd pay less, he said.

Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood pushed for a broad look at equity, such as how county hotel-motel tax money is distributed.

County Administrator Gregory Murray said he sent letters to municipalities about the planned change but got no specific feedback.

Last week, two mayors said they hadn't seen Murray's letter, two saw it but had questions, and one saw it and was satisfied with the concept.

Brubaker said Tuesday the mayors of Smithsburg and Boonsboro want to know more. He suggested taking a few months to study taxing structures in other counties and municipalities.

When the commissioners voted 3-0 last week for the new structure, Aleshire abstained, saying he favored phasing it in.

Kercheval disagreed Tuesday, arguing that it's like a Band-Aid that should be pulled off at once.

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