Towns tackle taxing choices

Varied philosophies guide levies, offered services

Some tax rates double others

Top-billing Westminster says quality is the priority

April 21, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

If Westminster leaders approve a proposed tax rise next month, the city's residents will pay a rate more than twice that charged in the town of Hampstead, about 10 miles to the northeast and about a third the size.

But Westminster officials say they offer enough additional services to make the difference worthwhile. No other Carroll municipality can match the city's 43-officer police force, trash and recycling services, array of parks, support for the arts, and economic development and planning staffs, they say.

Hampstead's government might not be able to match Westminster's range of services, town officials say, but it doesn't try. Instead, they say, it opts to provide basic services such as police protection; sewer, water and street services; and snow removal -- all at a minimal cost.

Neither approach is inherently better than the other, leaders from both municipalities say. Instead, they argue, the different philosophies -- ultimately represented in the cold numbers of property tax rates -- mean more options for people deciding where they want to live.

Reflecting the range of approaches to governing, municipal tax rates vary across Carroll County, with Westminster's being the highest -- before the increase -- at 35 cents per $100 of assessed value. New Windsor's is the lowest at 16 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Manchester, Hampstead and Mount Airy are clustered between 18 cents and 21 cents per $100, while Sykesville, Union Bridge and Taneytown range from 30 cents to 32 cents per $100.

Westminster is the only municipality in Carroll pondering a tax increase for fiscal 2003, which begins in July. The proposal has drawn little response -- positive or negative -- from residents.

If Westminster's tax increase -- to 40 cents per $100 -- is approved, the owner of a $125,000 house would pay the city $500 in taxes. In contrast, the owner of a $125,000 house in Hampstead would pay the town $225. That extra $275 could pay for a new DVD player, a few trips to the grocery store or a plane ticket to California.

"Here, the traditionally high level of service drives the tax rate," said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of public works and planning. "I wouldn't want to say any of the other towns don't offer wonderful services, but none of them offer what we offer."

Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker is similarly diplomatic, acknowledging a difference in spending philosophies between the two municipalities.

"We really just focus on providing core government services, whereas other jurisdictions get more involved in a lot of other activities," Decker said. "I'm certainly not asserting that Hampstead has some mystical power to stretch a buck twice as far as its neighbors. That's probably not the case. I would just say we're very frugal and yet provide a very high level of basic services."

Examining the numbers

Residents pay municipal taxes on top of the county tax of $1.04 per $100 of assessed value. By living in the municipalities, residents save themselves the out-of-pocket costs of hiring garbage haulers and other service providers. They also buy themselves a more intimate level of service than is available from larger governments.

"I guarantee you that in the winter, if someone called us and the county at the same time asking for help with snow removal, our plow would get there first," Decker said.

Carroll stands out in the county-government-dominated Baltimore metropolitan area for the number and diversity of smaller towns and cities it contains. Municipal taxes are a small and usually overlooked part of that distinction. The bills are often lumped with county taxes into overall local tax charges; those fees often are included in mortgage payments, so residents rarely glimpse the bills directly, officials say.

Tax rates are probably low on people's priority lists when they are deciding where to live, says Donald Jansiewicz, a retired political science professor from Carroll Community College.

"When people are looking to go somewhere, they're looking for something that feels and looks good, that's compatible with their interests," he said. "Tax rates are a detail on the list that can be used to help rationalize an initial instinct or not."

But the benefits resulting from higher tax rates do matter to potential home buyers, Westminster leaders say, and that's why they don't hesitate to propose an increase when they need more money.

Maintaining services

"I don't think raising taxes is something where people ever just go and do it," Beyard said. "It's one of those things in government that you don't touch unless you have to, but we've always put maintaining our standards of service as the highest priority, and sometimes that requires more money."

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