For the second time in less than two weeks, all three Carroll County commissioners traveled to Annapolis yesterday to do battle with their own legislative delegation.
The commissioners are opposing a bill on property tax reduction that they say could create a $43 million deficit in the county within five years.
Criticizing tax relief, particularly in an election year, might be an unpopular stance, but when cuts adversely affect the quality of life in one of the area's fastest-growing counties, officials must take a stand, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
Without consulting the commissioners, Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of Carroll's all-Republican delegation, submitted a bill last month that would lower the homestead tax credit by 2 percentage points beginning next year.
The measure would create a significant shortfall within five years that could delay or curtail county projects, including construction of schools, officials said.
But Haines countered that the county is "flush with revenue" and homeowners need tax relief. "This is a tax relief measure, not a tax cut," said Haines, who owns a Westminster real estate business.
Haines called the commissioners' dire projections of loss of services "totally off base." The assessable tax base jumped from $7.3 billion to $9.3 billion in the past three years, he said. Other revenues, particularly income tax, will erase any shortfall.
In arguments before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, said the commissioners "have to balance tax relief against responsibility to meet the needs of citizens.
"The commissioners also believe in tax relief and have exercised that belief twice in the last three years," Powell said. "The results of the Senate proposal could result in very real cuts in services throughout the county."
Powell offered statistics that showed Carroll as fiscally sound with a balanced budget through the next five years. "We have been prudent fiscal stewards," Powell said repeatedly.
Carroll County, which derives half its revenue from property taxes, posts the lowest per capita spending in the metropolitan area, the lowest property tax rate and the lowest recordation tax, he said.
Carroll's per-pupil spending is the lowest in the state and yet its school system is consistently rated second only to Howard County's, Powell said. The county's industrial commercial tax base is at 12 percent - the lowest in the area.
A hot real estate market helped create a $12 million budget surplus for Carroll, revenue that officials had hoped to use for long-planned projects. If the tax credit bill is approved, typically a courtesy extended on local bills, the county would face significant revenue shortfalls that could delay construction of schools, senior centers, parks and a fire training academy, officials said.
Haines' bill has the support of the delegation, as does a similar Carroll bill making its way through the House of Delegates.
"It is really tough to balance the wants and needs of the county and to keep taxes low," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, who represents South Carroll. "But this bill takes the public out of the process. It should come with a list of impacts and ask what people are willing to give up."
The commissioners lowered the homestead tax credit by 3 percentage points last year to 7 percent. The credit, designed to protect homeowners from spiraling assessments, caps the amount a property tax bill can increase annually, despite the size of increase in assessment.
The board has also drafted a senior tax credit that would help elderly residents stay in their homes. That proposal will go to public hearing March 14, but if Haines' bill passes, the board might not be able to enact tax relief for seniors, local officials said.
Haines, said, however, "We still need both measures."
Two members of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee testified in favor of Haines' bill.
Sykesville resident Larry Helminiak testified that "most people can't afford to buy the houses they are living in today because of increasing assessments. Even county employees can no longer afford to live in Carroll County."
Powell asked the committee to reject Haines' bill and leave "the responsibility to provide local services and manage budgetary expenditures" with the local government.