Spreading the Burden in Howard

November 05, 1991

Since the recession took hold, local jurisdictions have left no stone unturned in their quest to raise money. One intriguing idea gaining currency in Howard County is an impact tax on development. This sounds a lot like the impact fees builders pay county governments to help with improvements for roads, schools and sewer facilities in and around new development. But there's an important difference -- an impact tax can be used for any project anywhere in the county.

The significance of this shading can't be overemphasized at a time of plummeting tax revenues and dwindling state aid to local jurisdictions. County Executive Charles I. Ecker is pushing the idea as a centerpiece of Howard's long overdue adequate facilities ordinance, a measure that would forbid building in areas with overburdened schools and roads. The tax would be imposed on all commercial and residential building and go into a fund for road maintenance and construction. It could be withdrawn only if the county were willing and able to contribute twice as much to a given project.

We endorse this idea. It would create a pool of ready revenue for capital projects and more equitably spread the burden of road and school construction. It also would give the county flexibility to use the money where the need is greatest.

Predictably, some builders are balking at an additional overhead expense at a time when many are struggling to stay afloat. Howard developer John Troutman contends that a tax will make for more expensive, less affordable homes as it ultimately would be passed on to consumers. Economic and business realities make this unlikely. Howard is already awash in expensive homes builders are unable to unload; we can't imagine developers purposely pricing themselves out of the market.

Still, there are questions about how the tax would operate. What happens if the county can't match the tax funds? There is also a danger that Howard could lose developers to jurisdictions without such a levy. Nonetheless, this represents an innovative approach to an enduring problem in this fast-growing subdivision. Howard's past record on growth control leaves much to be desired. Adoption of this plan could mark a turning point.

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