The property tax assessment issue in Howard County, dormant for two weeks after the Nov. 6 election, came back to life as two separate bills were filed that would limit increases there to 5 percent a year.
The County Council defeated a similar bill just eight weeks ago. But now Councilman Charles Feaga, R-5th, the sponsor of the original bill, and Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, who voted against it, plan to introduce separate but identical bills at the council's Dec. 3 legislative session.
Pendergrass voted on Oct. 3 to table a bill introduced by Feaga that would have capped annual tax assessment increases at 5 percent. She said she drafted a similar bill to show bipartisan cooperation because Charles I. Ecker, the Republican county executive-elect, has lent his support to the tax cap.
She said she had offered to co-sponsor the bill with Feaga. But Feaga instead filed the same bill that the council voted, 4-1, to table. He predicted that it will be adopted the second time around because of Ecker's support and the addition of another Republican council member, Darrell Drown, who toppled Councilwoman Angela Beltram, D-2nd.
While debating the first bill, Feaga and some other council members swapped charges that their divergent positions on a tax assessment cap were geared to gain them favor for the Nov. 6 election. "This time, no one will be looking at it politically," he said.
The bills were drafted a day after the state Department of Assessments and Taxation notified the county that it had not set a tax cap as required by law. The state legislature this year passed a bill that limits assessment increases to 10 percent a year and permits jurisdictions to lower them beyond that. Local jurisdictions must set the 10 percent rate or a lower rate by Dec. 31. Baltimore County, for instance, approved a 4 percent cap on assessment increases and Baltimore City plans to follow suit.
If the County Council passes one of the tax cap bills, the government would lose $1.26 million in tax revenue a year, according to state assessors, who reported that 30,472 property owners would realize savings.
The bills come as county officials are struggling with a projected budgetary shortfall that has continued to grow. Budget Officer Raymond Wacks said yesterday that the gap in the county's $286.4 million budget would probably exceed $10 million, and maybe greatly so.
Pendergrass expressed concern about the county's growing budgetary shortfall and acknowledged that a tax cap bill could further reduce revenues. But she said the county would not be affected if Ecker is able to deliver on a campaign pledge to cut government spending and waste.
"This gives him a chance to streamline government and not cut services," Pendergrass said.
Ecker said yesterday that he still supports the 5 percent cap, although it means the county would not receive automatic increases in revenue. He said the bill would force government officials to evaluate their priorities, but left open the possibility of raising the tax rate of $2.45 per $100 of assessed property value to make up for any revenue loss caused by the cap.
"I don't think I'd be comfortable with raising taxes," he said, "but it may be necessary."