Germantown Weighs a Tax That Binds
Friday, November 25, 2005
If Germantown were a city, it would be Maryland's second largest, after Baltimore. It is home to 85,000 people, 30,000 more than nearby Rockville. Its footprint covers 16 square miles, six more than neighboring Gaithersburg.
The difference is that Rockville and Gaithersburg are both incorporated, with mayors, councils and city managers. Germantown, an unincorporated part of Montgomery County, doesn't even have an official Web site. Until this year, there were no signs on state roads letting drivers know when they enter the community.
"It was more like German-area rather than German-town," said Douglas O'Bryon, a former resident who now lives in Ohio.
Lately, however, citizen groups and officials at two county agencies are pushing a proposal they say will give this fragmented place something it has been struggling to develop for decades: a sense of community and a spirit of unity.
The idea is to levy a tax on residents and businesses to generate money to enhance services and amenities, borrowing a concept that has been used in Montgomery towns such as Bethesda and Wheaton. The improvement district, as it would be known in Germantown, would be the first of its kind in the county's northern tier.
If the agencies get enough community support, they will recommend to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) that he include the potential tax revenue in his budget proposal for next year.
Then, if the County Council approves the plan, residential and commercial property in the Germantown master plan area will be taxed a maximum of 2.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation annually. The revenue, an estimated $1.7 million, would go toward some services the county is now responsible for but performs infrequently -- including maintaining medians, trimming trees, removing weeds and picking up trash in public areas.
"You start to tie things together if you show pride," said Bob Fischer, a business development specialist for the county's Department of Housing and Community Affairs who is promoting the plan. Officials at another agency, the Upcounty Regional Services Center, also are behind the idea.
Other, more obvious community-building activities and amenities -- such as street banners, signs and flags -- would be included in the budget. So would money for Germantown's main community event, its Oktoberfest celebration, and new events such as Fourth of July fireworks. A citizens advisory group would oversee the budget, and an on-site supervisor would monitor the work.
The money could be used only in Germantown.
"It's a step forward," said Christina Hackett, president of the Chadswood Homeowners Association. "It's the next best thing to being a city."
Others see it as a waste of money at a time when there are more pressing needs, such as preventing gang violence. "I don't think that we should have to pay more taxes to get someone to mow our grass," said Germantown resident Alice Gordon, who produces a weekly cable show about issues in northern Montgomery.