Anne Arundel tax revolt leader Robert Schaeffer reversed himself yesterday, disavowing reports last week that his proposal to limit property tax revenues could provide virtually no relief to home owners.
Contradicting statements he made last week, Schaeffer said the charter amendment drafted by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government could lower the $2.46 property tax rate as much as 6 cents next year.
Schaeffer blamed the press for his confusion, saying his conclusions last week were in response to reporters' second-hand accounts of a county Office of Law legal interpretation. Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said Tuesday that new construction would allow more growth in property tax revenues than proscribed by a proposed charter amendment.
"I haven't reversed myself," said Schaeffer, AATRG president, "You've reversed me."
The measure would cap revenue growth at 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
Based on the unofficial law office opinion, the Office of Budget said that the current $2.46 tax rate would probably decline by no more than 2 cents and the loss in anticipated revenue would not exceed $2 million next year, with similarly negligible impact in the future. Earlier assumptions had produced estimates of a 40-cent tax cut over five years and $118 million in lost revenue.
The county's current operating budget is $617 million.
Debate over the amendment was thrown into confusion last week as supporters questioned whether they would ever see lower tax bills and opponents reconsidered fears that county services would suffer.
Plymyer's interpretation of the measure is based on the official amendment language which says "The constant yield tax rate, as currently specified by the Tax-property article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, shall continue as the method of assurance that revenue derived from the property tax remains at a constant level from one year to the next."
As spelled out in state law, any property tax rate that would generate more revenue from the county's previous year's assessable base (the constant yield) must be justified at a public hearing. But the formula allows the county to take in revenue above the constant yield from taxes on new construction before it becomes part of the next year's assessable base.
Beginning with the Anne Arundel County Sun Tuesday, several newspapers reported Schaeffer agreeing with Plymyer's interpretation of the constant yield language in the AATRG measure.
But Schaeffer reversed himself yesterday, saying the cap on new revenues applies equally to new construction and the existing assessable base.
"They cannot exceed the revenue growth limit by 4.5 percent no matter what," Schaeffer said.
The only reason for mentioning the constant yield in the amendment is to reaffirm that the county must hold a public hearing to set the property tax rate, he said.
"I was sloppy in my comments because of the way I understood what Plymyer was saying," Schaeffer said. "But when I saw how it came out in the papers, I realized how much I disagreed with him."
Although Schaeffer accused the county of deliberately spreading confusion, he did not dispute press accounts of his statements until he spelled out his current position in Saturday's Washington Post.
But Schaeffer insisted that the Post misquoted him Saturday when it reported him saying that the amendment would save the typical home owner hundreds of dollars next year. He refused yesterday to be pinned down to any figures, saying only that any increase in the county's assessable base must be offset by a decrease in the property tax rate.
Depending on growth levels, he guessed that the measure could cut the tax rate as much as 6 cents next year. Such a cut would save the owner of an average $109,700 home less than $30.
AATRG once predicted its measure would produce a 56-cent cut in the property tax, before the state Court of Appeals struck down an amendment provision that would roll revenues back to fiscal year 1989 levels.
Plymyer concluded Friday that all the confusion should warn voters to reject the amendment, saying that the Court of Appeals will probably be the ultimate judge of what it means.
"If I drafted legislation of this magnitude with this degree of ambiguity, I would be out in the soup line right now looking for lunch," he said.