Budget debate, tax rate hearing re-ignite political wars in county

Political Notebook

May 11, 2008|By Larry Carson

The political wars over Howard County tax policy pop up each spring, as evidenced by a County Council budget debate and the four people who came to the annual constant-yield tax rate hearing before the council's May legislative meeting.

The constant yield hearing is required under state law to demonstrate to residents that rising state property assessments (and state legislators) are not responsible for their higher property tax bills. If local government officials would lower county tax rates, the amount of revenue would remain the same.

In Howard County's case, Council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, told those assembled that revenue from property taxes is to rise 6.6 percent in fiscal 2009, giving county officials an extra $21.7 million. To keep revenues static, the county property tax rate would have to drop from $1.014 to 0.952 cents per $100 of value.

County Executive Ken Ulman has proposed leaving the tax rate unchanged, which would cost the owners of a house assessed at $250,000 an extra $125 and $228 on the bill for owners of a house valued at $450,000. At the same time, Howard County's 5 percent assessment cap is worth an average $1,600 a year in tax credits to most county homeowners, according to county officials.

Three of the four speakers at last week's constant-yield hearing live in Watson's Ellicott City-Elkridge district. Their message was that county government should not increase tax burdens while residents are struggling with rising energy and food costs.

Paul Spause of Hanover decried the 5 percent and 6 percent pay raises that county teachers, police and firefighters are scheduled to get July 1, and suggested the council cut enough from Ulman's budget to at least lower the property tax rate to 99 cents per $100 of value, from the current $1.014. That, he said, would require a $5.8 million spending cut.

"Very few in the private sector see a 5 or 6 percent pay increase," Spause said.

Watson might have been thinking of that testimony Tuesday, when she wondered aloud if Ulman's plan to raise the annual trash fee by $50 and spend $3 million on larger, wheeled recycling bins couldn't be put off for a year in favor of a public education campaign to encourage more recycling without giving out the bins.

"You would think [the administration] would have time to wait a year on the bins," she said.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, helped lead the charge against the fee increase and the purchase of bins.

"Why not just educate people without the bins?" he asked.

But budget director Raymond S. Wacks and public works director James M. Irvin opposed any delay. They said the county is planning a major publicity campaign once the new bins begin to hit the streets. The big bins, Irvin and Wacks argued, would be a constant reminder for residents to recycle more.

In a few years, the cost of disposing of a ton of trash is set to jump from $35 under an existing long-term contract to more than $70 a ton, and Ulman sees recycling as a way of cutting disposal costs.

Wacks also made a case that Howard residents don't bear an inordinate tax burden compared with eight other Central Maryland jurisdictions.

His comparison showed that Howard families with the county's median 2006 household income of $93,050 and a house valued at the April 2007 average sale price of $427,703 pay less property tax than residents of four other jurisdictions -- Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.

The overall tax burden in Howard, including all taxes and fees, is lower than inall but Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, according to Wacks.

The trash fee, even if it rises to $225 a year, would still be among the lowest regionally, they added.

Wacks also pointed out, after several council members noted that Howard is in good financial shape compared with other counties -- notably Montgomery and Prince George's -- that if the local income tax rate had not been raised in 2003, "we'd have $80 million less revenue."

Fox accused Wacks of using "funny numbers" for his survey.

"This is worthless," he said to Wacks after the meeting.

"It is not worthless," Wacks replied.

The council is to take final votes on the budget May 22.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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