Fate of transfer tax uncertain Council remains split as vote nears

April 04, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

The fate of Harford's proposed real estate transfer tax appears uncertain, with lawmakers divided over the measure that supporters tout as a savior for dwindling farmland and a source of desperately needed money for school construction.

The seven-member County Council must vote on the transfer tax, proposed in 1992 by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, at its meeting Tuesday night, or the legislation will die. The council also is expected to vote on a land-preservation plan -- but the plan depends on money from the transfer tax to pay farm owners who agree not to let their land be developed.

Two council members say they favor the transfer tax; two oppose it; three are undecided.

"I think we have a good shot at defeating the transfer tax," said Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D. Mr. Glassman and Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, have vowed to vote against the tax.

"This county is in good financial shape," Mr. Glassman said. "We canuse cash to pay for land preservation. We don't need another tax."

Mr. Wagner called the transfer tax unfair because school construction and land preservation benefit everyone, yet the transfer tax would target only those buying or selling real estate.

Other critics, including some Realtors and home builders, share those sentiments and have lobbied hard to defeat the proposal. The Harford County Chamber of Commerce also has joined the opposition.

Representatives of parent-teacher groups have collected hundreds of signatures favoring the transfer tax, arguing that the county needs money the tax would generate to build schools. And the school board voted unanimously on a resolution supporting the tax, calling it "essential" for school construction.

Philip J. Barker, D-District F, also considers the tax essential.

"I don't see where we have any alternative," he said. "Both land preservation and school construction are so important and so vital, we need to

vote yes."

Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, also pledged to vote for the tax, saying that she hasn't heard any better ideas to pay for farmland preservation or school construction.

Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, has been an outspoken critic of the transfer tax, which he has called a "bad bill." But he said he may vote for the transfer tax because farm preservation is so important.

Joanne S. Parrott, R-District B, said she was leaning against voting for the tax but remained undecided. She said the county can't afford to rely only on new schools to cope with a growing school-age population.

"Land costs are so high that the cost of building new schools is out of sight," she said.

She noted that some schools, particularly along the U.S. 40 corridor, are under capacity, and she suggested that students could be moved to those schools "so we are managing our schools more effectively."

Susan Heselton, R-District A, also remains undecided.

"I wouldn't book a bet on that sucker," Mrs. Heselton said of the tax. "My gut feeling is that the transfer tax is not a good idea. On the other hand, you can't ignore the fact that more than 60 percent of the residents voted for the referendum" in a November ballot question.

She said voters may not have understood what they were voting for.

The referendum amended the county charter so farmers could be paid for their land in unequal payments. Farmers would receive mostly interest for the first 20 years, then a lump sum. The money for the land would be raised, at least partly, through the transfer tax.

The tax would amount to 1 percent of a property's selling price, excluding the first $30,000. The tax on a $100,000 house would amount to $700.

It would be levied against anyone taking possession of property and raise up to $5 million a year after the first year, county officials say.

This year, the transfer tax would raise about $1.5 million because would not be levied on real estate sales for which contracts were signed before July 1.

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