Taxes rising? Uh, not exactly

State-mandated ad causing confusion

May 23, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Question: When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Answer: When the Baltimore government takes out a newspaper advertisement for a "proposed property tax increase."

Confused? So were several readers of The Sun, who upon seeing the ad in yesterday's editions of the paper confronted City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr.

D'Adamo's name happened to be in the ad -- unknown to him, and in an election year, no less. When D'Adamo went to Patterson Park yesterday to hand out prizes in a dog contest, nearly 20 of his constituents let him have it.

"Councilman, I understand taxes are going up," one angry man told D'Adamo. When the councilman said that a tax-rate increase was news to him -- and that there was no talk at City Hall of increasing taxes -- the man answered: "Don't tell me that. It's in the paper."

The source of the confusion can be traced to a state law governing what is known as the "constant yield tax rate." The law requires counties or, in this case, the city, to run an ad if estimates show an increase in property tax revenues, even if there is no increase in the property tax rate.

The law had its genesis in 1977, when inflation was driving property values up and state and local legislators tried to shift blame to each other for rising tax bills. A 1990 amendment prescribed a precise format for the ads, mandating the type size and a headline that includes the words "PROPOSED PROPERTY TAX INCREASE."

Last year, Carroll County commissioners were so annoyed by the requirement that they ran a second ad, declaring in equally large type that they were not raising the tax rate, the "confusing language" of the mandated ad notwithstanding.

For years, Baltimore has not seen its tax revenues rise, said Ronald L. Schultz, director of the city's office of council services. But an increase in state assessments, along with no proposed change in the city's tax rate of $5.82 per $100 of assessed value, means that city tax revenues will likely increase this year.

He said D'Adamo's name was placed at the bottom of the ad because he is chairman of the council's budget and appropriations committee. Schultz said the ad is expected to cost about $4,000. Committee chairmen's names are listed on dozens of legal ads placed every year by the city.

Schultz acknowledges that he should have warned D'Adamo about the ad -- and the heat it was bound to produce.

"It was a gaffe," he said.

And not the only one. The ad states that city could expect more than $488 million in new property tax revenues -- a figure that is about $487 million too high. The mistake apparently will be corrected.

Said Schultz: "We're actually going to re-advertise this."

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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