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Property Owners' Burden Rising

Area Home Taxes Foot Bigger Share of Government Costs

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A01

Like many homeowners around Washington, Harry Lowcock is angry. Over the last four years, the tax bill on his Reston area home has jumped nearly $500 annually.

"What is all the money going for?" the 60-year-old translator wondered last week. "I'm not seeing it in better services. Homeowners are becoming cash cows."

Scott K. York points to the expense of building new schools in fast-growing Loudoun. (Tracy A Woodward--The Washington Post)

Rising Home Taxes: The average residential real estate tax bill in many parts of the Washington area has grown rapidly over the past five years.
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Property Tax Relief Offered in Name Only (The Washington Post, Apr 12, 2005)
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He is not alone.

The spectacular boom in Washington area real estate prices over the last five years has been accompanied by staggering increases in home tax bills as many local governments have spurned significant tax cuts in favor of reaping billions more from homeowners.

Elected leaders, in announcing their annual budgets in recent weeks, often have boasted of slashing home tax rates. But a review of five years of local budgets shows that those tax-rate cuts have been far too small to offset the climb in home values, and, as a result, average tax bills in much of the region have gone up as much as 70 percent in just five years.

Those taxes are being channeled into rapidly expanding budgets for schools, police and other services, but they are not just boosting spending. They are shifting a larger share of the burden of government costs onto homeowners.

Five years ago in much of Northern Virginia, for example, home taxes paid for roughly one-third of local government spending. The rest came mostly from businesses and other sources.

This year, the share of the cost of local government borne by homeowners has grown to nearly a half.

For the average homeowner in the District and Northern Virginia, where the tax increases have been steepest, the tax bill will have jumped 60 percent or more over five years under this year's budget proposals, leaving the typical owner to pay as much as $2,000 more in annual taxes than five years ago.

In Loudoun and Arlington counties, the average tax bills have risen fastest, often more than doubling over five years, based on new rates.

In several Maryland counties, home tax assessments are capped, and the increases have generally been smaller. But in Montgomery County, the average home tax bill will have risen 37 percent over five years.

Many politicians argue that the money is well-spent. But not everyone is satisfied.

"In their gut, more and more people are wondering, 'Where is all this money going?' " said James T. Parmelee, president of a tax relief group in Fairfax County. "I think everyone has a suspicion that their money is being at least partially wasted. If tax bills have gone up 70 percent, you have to ask whether services have improved by 70 percent or whether homeowners' satisfaction has gone up 70 percent. I think the answer is, 'No way.' "

The biggest single reason for the tax increases is school spending, which is not surprising, since education has long dwarfed other items in local budgets.

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