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Charles Seniors Gain Ally On Taxes

Commissioner Smith Pushes for a Break

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page SM01

Charles County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said last week that he wants to provide a tax break to senior citizens and that he would consider reducing the county's property tax rate for all residents.

After a public hearing Tuesday afternoon, at which many in the large crowd gave impassioned testimony that rising home assessments were making their property tax burden hard to bear, Smith said he was moved by the arguments.

Commissioner Al Smith says he would consider cutting the property tax rate for all Charles County residents. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

"There's nothing really wonderful about growing old for some people, and I don't think we ought to add to that burden," he said. Smith said he would push for a bill to give seniors a property tax credit when the county formulates its proposals for next year's General Assembly session. "I'd like to see us freezing the tax on their homes from here to perpetuity."

On May 16, the commissioners are scheduled to meet to set the property tax rate for the coming year. Smith said, "We need to look at . . . what it would take to lower the tax rate back, to even things out for the assessment."

Between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2004, Charles County's property tax rate stayed steady at $1.016 per $100 of assessed value. This fiscal year it rose to $1.026. If the commissioners keep the same rate, the county will collect $6.6 million more in property tax revenue in fiscal 2006 because property values have increased sharply, said budget director David Eicholtz.

So the commissioners are wrestling with the question of whether that $6.6 million is needed to provide services to the growing county or whether any of it can be forgone to lessen the tax burden.

No other commissioners have indicated that they support reducing the tax rate.

"I'm very sympathetic to their concerns and their issues," said commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large), referring to residents who spoke out at the hearing. He said he may support some type of tax relief for low-income residents. But, he added, "if we don't keep up [with taxes], we will be cutting services."

"Do we stop building roads and schools?" he asked.

Some elderly people at the hearing Tuesday said the rising taxes are creating difficult choices for them, too.

"Do I freeze, or do I eat? Do I buy my medications, or what do I do?" said David Lilly of La Plata. "It's becoming a serious problem . . . my income has gone down, and my cost of living has gone up."

Horace Hodges of Waldorf said he has lived in the county for 42 years and in the beginning paid $209 in property taxes. Last year, he said, he paid $2,400 in taxes. He suggested the county bring back slot machines to ease the property tax burden.

Kay Shank of Nanjemoy said the county should not spend millions on a minor league baseball stadium when its residents are struggling to pay their taxes. The commissioners recently committed to spending $6 million to build a stadium on the southern edge of Waldorf.

"I want the county to get back to funding the basics, such as public safety, transportation and schools, to invest wisely and to rein in its spending," she said. "That's what families have to do. Why not our government?"

Charles County's property tax rate is the seventh highest in the state and surpasses those of its Southern Maryland neighbors. Calvert County's rate is 89.2 cents, and St. Mary's is 87.8 cents. But Charles County officials say residents of other counties pay additional types of taxes that make the total tax burden difficult to compare.

"It's just such totally different circumstances in each county," said Charles County Administrator Eugene Lauer. "What is a penny raise in Montgomery amount to? It's mind-boggling."

Looking at the Prince George's County property tax rate of 96 cents, Lauer said: "The problem is that doesn't add in the park and planning commission, the WSSC or probably even the Prince George's storm-water tax. You add all those in and the thing goes up to about $1.20, I think," he said.

All of the commissioners said they need to consider the issue more before making a decision.

"I'm not in favor of persons being overburdened," said Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret). "[But] what I'm not going to do is promise folks something just to appease them and not be sincere. What I think is important is for the commissioners to think long and hard about the decision."

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