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Decide on an excise tax and stick with it

March 09, 2013

Since first gaining the authority to tax new development more than a decade ago, the Washington County Commissioners have not known quite what to do with the power.

The excise tax, as it’s known, was believed to be crucial back in the days when housing developments were blossoming across the county like May apples in the spring. But almost from the beginning, developers have pressured the commissioners into tax reductions and loopholes.

This is what we might call a multigenerational county problem, meaning that county boards past and present have all been susceptible to developer lobbying. So the blame for this ongoing comedy of excise errors does not rest with this board alone.

This week, however, this particular board was at it again, agreeing to further what it calls a stimulus, by extending an excise-tax break three more months until Sept. 30. Further, the commissioners said they would hold a public hearing to determine whether the excise tax should be lowered permanently.

Of course, builders and commercial Realtors are all for this. Smart-growth and conservation groups will almost assuredly have a different opinion.

We believe the excise tax is a valuable tool that helps to pay for the new roads, schools and utilities created by growth. When we do not pay for student capacity, we get what we have seen at Pangborn Elementary, a school that was over capacity just a few years after it was built.

We take issue with the county’s inability to pick a tax rate and stick with it. Since its inception, no board of county commissioners has been able to pick a rate and decide on the size of construction to which it should apply.

Curiously, one of the builders’ greatest complaints in Washington County is the randomness of its inspections and inspectors — they don’t know what to expect, and therefore don’t know how to plan. That should apply to the excise tax as well. Why would a developer build now if he has reason to believe the tax will be lower in six months?

Along with being poor policy, this unstable course has left the commissioners open to criticisms from conservation groups that believe developers call the shots in Washington County.

Whatever the politics, the fact of the matter is that development will require new schools and better roads. The excise tax places a greater share of this burden on developers who profit from this growth, and the alternative is to place the burden on the general population of taxpayers.

If the latter course is the one that commissioners prefer, that is their choice. But they need to be straight with the rank-and-file residents, and tell them that they, not developers, will be the ones paying the bill for growth.

With that in mind, it’s time for the commissioners to end the silliness surrounding the excise tax. Pick a rate and stick with it, or eliminate it once and for all.

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