Annapolis may finance private suits City panel votes to fight increase in county property tax

'It borders on ludicrous'

$50,000 may be spent to subsidize cases against 8-cent rise

June 28, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang and Scott Wilson | Dan Thanh Dang and Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Annapolis officials are preparing to spend public money to pay for private lawsuits challenging Anne Arundel County's recent property tax increase on city land owners.

A unanimous vote yesterday by the city council Finance Committee marks the first step toward committing more taxpayer money to the city's fight against an 8-cent property tax increase included in the county budget. It also promises to exacerbate an already strained relationship between Anne Arundel and Annapolis, which for the past two months have fought bitterly over the issue.

The vote would allow the city to spend $50,000 subsidizing lawsuits brought against the county by individual Annapolis property owners, who believe they have been over-taxed for public services. The claims would be brought in Maryland Tax Court.

The recommendation must first receive the endorsement of the Annapolis city council, which will consider the proposal July 8. And not all of the aldermen are pleased with it.

"We're holding out our one hand to the county and with our other hand, we're slapping them in the face," said M. Theresa DeGraff, a Ward 7 Republican who also opposed a failed city lawsuit attempting to head off the tax increase. "Haven't we learned anything? It borders on ludicrous."

The vote by the three-member finance committee -- Aldermen Carl O. Snowden, D-Ward 5, Dean L. Johnson, I-Ward 2 and Shep Tullier, D-Ward 4 -- comes as Annapolis and Anne Arundel officials are trying to make up after months of political fighting.

Last month, Annapolis attorneys sued the county to prevent a tax increase from taking effect for the fiscal year beginning Monday. They lost, but not before infuriating Anne Arundel officials who say the higher tax rate is needed to pay for increasingly expensive public services like education and public safety.

County Executive John G. Gary proposed the tax increase, which would have added $61 to the average annual Annapolis property tax bill, as part of his budget for the coming year. The new rate will raise $760,000 a year for a County trying to pay for a $62 million county courthouse and a $27.9 million jail in Glen Burnie.

City officials passed their own budget with a 4-cent reduction to offset the county's tax increase.

That increase, combined with the city's reduction, will raise the city's overall tax rate from $3.23 per $100 of assessed value to $3.27, adding roughly $31 to the average Annapolis property tax bill. That rate is 89 cents higher than the one paid by residents outside the city.

Snowden, chairman of the finance committee, said he believes the recommendation will not harm city-county relations because "Mr. Gary and others understand that if citizens feel they have been unfairly taxed, they have a right to take their grievances to court."

"Whether the city funded a part of this or not, any citizen has the right to do it," Snowden said. "It's really beside the point. The city is not litigating this matter."

But county officials expressed otherwise. Many officials, who thought the court's rejection of the city lawsuit was a sign that peace was finally at hand, voiced disappointment in what they saw as a move by the city encouraging taxpayers to file suit.

Gary said in a statement that he was "very disappointed given that the city finance committee offered to work constructively with us in the future."

County Councilman William C. Mulford II, who has been under fire recently from city officials and residents who criticized his approval of the tax increase, also questioned the city's role in the potential lawsuit.

"That's a half-cent on the city's property tax rate," Mulford said. "I would think it would be better to reduce the overall tax burden."

"I think the quickest and easiest way is to spend money finding a better way to set the tax differential," Mulford said.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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