Howard County drops fee put on semiannual property tax payments

`Strong economy' justifies the change, Robey says

February 20, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

What one branch of government gives with one hand, another often takes away -- but not this time.

Howard County will not charge homeowners a fee for paying their property taxes in semiannual installments instead of once at the start of each fiscal year, County Executive James N. Robey has announced.

His move follows similar decisions by Baltimore, Montgomery and Frederick counties.

The decision, which pending bills in the General Assembly could make state law anyway, will save the owner of a $200,000 home about $16 a year -- which equals a 2-cent increase in the property tax rate.

Howard County expects to lose about $1.4 million in interest by giving back half the prepaid taxes, and would have made up $900,000 of that through the fees.

But Robey, noting the robust economy, decided to act without waiting for the General Assembly.

"Given today's strong economy, the justification under which this fee was created no longer applies," he said Friday. "I am comfortable that we are in a position to absorb the loss."

Budget director Raymond S. Wacks briefed the County Council on the issue last week, calling the complicated shift in costs "a matter of reallocation of fees."

County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is the council's liaison to the Maryland Association of Counties, said the state bills likely will be passed.

"The service fees will be gone," he said.

Guzzone and Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, supported Robey's decision.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, criticized the concept of such a fee by analyzing it a different way.

"We're not going to make as much money on your money, so we're going to charge you," he said at the council meeting.

Searching last year for ways to cut Maryland's high mortgage closing costs, state legislators changed the system of paying a year's property taxes at the start of each fiscal year July 1.

With authorization of semiannual payments, homeowners are due to receive a one-time, half-year refund this summer.

But that will cost county governments millions in lost investment interest.

To compensate, the state allowed each county to collect a small fee.

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