About 100 people jammed a public hearing last night to lobby the Harford County Council to approve a new tax on real estate sales that would go toward school construction and farmland preservation.
Parents, principals and teachers pleaded for council approval of the transfer tax, which could generate up to $5 million annually, to be split evenly between new schools and land preservation.
"The PTA is strongly behind the transfer tax, and that's mainly because it will provide the funding that is needed for school construction," said Mark M. Wolkow, legislative representative for the Abingdon Elementary PTA.
"The problem now is time," he said. "In Abingdon alone, we need to plan for middle and high schools and buy while land is cheap and bond rates are low."
Andre A. Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said he asked the county's 15,000 members to pack the meeting.
PTA members also have collected signatures and sent letters to council members in support of the transfer tax.
County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann proposed the tax in January. It would be paid by those taking possession of property and amount to 1 percent of the selling price, excluding the first $30,000.
County officials called the tax a key element in the effort to preserve dwindling farmland.
Harford has about 96,000 acres in rural or agricultural land, down from 149,000 acres in 1965, county statistics show, and half the money raised by the tax would go toward paying farmers who agree not to let their land be developed.
But some Realtors and home builders, who also turned out for the hearing, asserted that the tax, on which the council is to vote April 6, unfairly targeted only those buying or selling real estate.
James M. Martin, chairman of the legislative and political affairs committee for the Harford County Board of Realtors said the tax ultimately would increase the price of homes. For example, he predicted, the tax would add $700 to the price of a $100,000
"The transfer tax is unfair, particularly to first-time home buyers and low-income home buyers, and could make it more difficult for those who want to buy a home," he said.
Paul E. Lynch Jr., president of Lynch Builders Inc. and the Homebuilders Association of Harford County, agreed.
"If preserving farmland is so important, and it is, then the cost should be shared by all citizens," Mr. Lynch said.
Jean R. Thomas, president of the county teachers union, the Harford County Education Association, said she worried that the transfer tax, if approved, might not translate into more money for the schools.
"Just because the transfer tax would make extra dollars available does not mean that the schools would get them," she said before the meeting. "That is very naive. I would be very glad for the County Council and the county executive to prove me wrong. But I don't think that will happen."
Some council members have also expressed doubts about the viability of a transfer tax.
Barry T. Glassman, a Republican from district D, said the county doesn't need another tax when it has a budget surplus of about $10 million.
Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, said he would prefer scrapping the transfer tax and raising property taxes to pay for farmland preservation.
"I have not said I would vote against the transfer tax, but I am trying to get support to increase the property tax instead," he said.
Mr. Wilson said no other council members had agreed to support his idea.
"This will affect everyone in Harford County every time they sell or buy a home, not just people moving into the county," he said.
"I hate the transfer tax, but if push comes to shove, I love farmland preservation more," Mr. Wilson said.
He said he planned to propose an amendment last night that would eliminate the transfer tax on inherited property. As proposed, the tax would be levied against those who inherited property.
"This would make a bad bill better," he said.