Commissioners Hold A Meeting, And No One Comes

I SCRIBE

Morning Start, Littlenotice Keep Public From Tax Cap Session

October 20, 1991|By Adam Sachs

The county commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday and no residents attended.

No big surprise.

Residents often rain on the commissioners' parades by being no-shows at these events, intended to gain insight into the public consciousness.

In this case, I don't believe the commissioners wanted to hear much from the public. They wanted this ordinance to be a done deal, quick and sweet.

And this wasn't a trivial issue concerning only a few. This concerned all homeowners. It involved that dreaded "T"word that caused such a rage throughout the 1990 election and is stirring again as the state legislature grapples with money problems. Yes, TAXES.

Relax. Take a deep breath.

Specifically, the commissioners decided to retain the 10 percent limit on annual increases in property tax assessments the county had adopted in 1990.

It seems obvious the commissioners had made their decision before the hearing because none could answer a basic question: How much revenue would thecounty lose if the cap was reduced by 1 percentage point. The budgetoffice recommended retaining a 10 percent cap and did not submit analyses of other scenarios.

The commissioners seem to believe that residents aren't that interested in this issue. Are they right? Maybe,but they certainly didn't give the public much opportunity to demonstrate otherwise. The issue generated public interest last year in Baltimore and Howard counties, which adopted caps below 10 percent.

First, a stab at simplifying this jargon about assessment caps and taxrates.

Homeowners statewide have objected to rapidly rising tax bills, which skyrocketed because of increases in local government tax rates and the once-every-three-year reassessment of property values.

Reacting to the outcry, the General Assembly in 1990 passed a law reducing the cap on annual assessment increases from 15 percent to 10percent. Local governments can set caps below 10 percent.

Thus, aCarroll homeowner whose annual assessment increased by 15 percent last year would have paid taxes on only 10 percent.

But even if a cap is set at 5 percent, it doesn't necessarily mean tax-bill savings or government-revenue reductions. It depends on adjustments that governments make in the tax rate. Raising the rate compensates for lowering the cap.

The law's purpose is to focus taxpayers' attention on local government decisions. Previously, governments in areas where property values increased rapidly could rely on large revenue increases each year.

Setting a lowered cap slows natural revenue growth, allowing residents to gauge better government's revenue raising and spending by monitoring the tax rate.

Now, back to the indictment. It'snot an indictment of the 10 percent cap, which 18 of Maryland's 24 subdivisions adopted last year. It might be the most logical decision during a recession, when many other sources of revenue are drying up.Besides, it enhances government's image by allowing it to maintain alower tax rate.

It's an indictment of the decision-making process, and indirectly, the commissioner form of government that allows it.

First, the hearing took place at 11:30 a.m., an inconvenient timefor working people, even homemakers. The commissioners often schedule hearings concerning mining, zoning amendments, utility projects andother issues affecting smaller communities at night.

CommissionerDonald I. Dell said he doubted anyone would have attended in the evening, either. Maybe, but give them a chance. A few is better than none.

The hearing was advertised in the legal notices section of a local newspaper -- the traditional method, but not the most effective way of informing the public.

The public information office usually alerts the media to spread the word, sending out news releases of upcoming hearings when it has advance knowledge. But even though the hearing was officially scheduled three weeks before taking place, PublicInformation Officer Micki Smith said her office didn't know until itappeared on the weekly agenda, just two working days in advance and too late to react.

"It was a communication lag," she said.

Then, the hearing, wham-bam: ordinance introduced, motion made, vote taken, passage. Two minutes elapsed.

It doesn't work this way in otherBaltimore-area counties, but they have charter governments with executives and councils.

In Howard County, the tax cap ordinance was introduced at one meeting, debated at a public hearing at a second session and acted upon at a third. The process spans at least one month,allowing a full chance for public participation. All meetings take place in the evenings.

The Harford County Council introduced its tax cap bill Tuesday and scheduled a hearing for 6 p.m. Nov. 19. It, too, holds all hearings in the evening.

Both councils are split on whether to raise their caps to 10 percent.

Those two counties conducted business more openly and encouraged more public participation, which is what government should be all about.

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