Families moving to the Washington area can choose to live with the deer in the country, with the sirens in the city, with the shopping malls in the suburbs, or in any of a variety of neighborhoods with different personalities.
Residents-to-be also face a bewildering variety of local tax schemes that affect taxpayers differently depending on how much money they earn and how they spend it, according to a report recently released by the District's Department of Finance and Revenue.
A new arrival can choose to live in any of 11 jurisdictions, including two states and one unique "city-state," each with its own taxing authority. The tax systems in the District, Maryland, Virginia and the area's counties and cities vary greatly in the way they treat individual income, water and sewer use, property and inheritance taxes, purchases of cigarettes and alcohol, and other financial transactions.
Overall, the District has higher tax rates than Maryland or Virginia in several categories, including individual income and corporate income taxes, motor-vehicle registration, and motor-vehicle fuel, sales and use, according to the report, which is based on 1984 tax rates. But several counties and cities impose taxes on top of state taxes, making their rates higher than the District's in some categories.
Some taxpayers in the District pay lower taxes than they might in suburban areas because of differences in progressivity -- the degree to which taxes increase as incomes rise, or the difference between what percentage of income is paid in local taxes by residents at the highest income level compared with those at the lowest level.
The District has the most progressive local tax system, or the largest difference in the percentage of income paid by the richest and the poorest, followed by Montgomery County, the report said. Alexandria is the local jurisdiction with the least progressive system.
Thus, a hypothetical family of four earning $15,000 a year could face the highest overall tax burden in Alexandria and the lowest in Charles County, while a family earning $75,000 a year could pay the highest taxes in the District and the lowest in Charles County, according to the models used by the District's Department of Finance and Revenue.
Businesses moving to the Washington area consider corporate taxes to be one of many important factors weighing in the decision, along with real estate costs, lease rates, labor costs, labor pool qualities, access to transportation and proximity to markets, said several officials with area county and city economic development offices.
Similarly, families and individuals moving here for professional reasons consider many factors when choosing a home, including real estate prices, financing costs, access to transportation and "quality of life" factors such as school systems, recreational facilities, entertainment and community feeling. Personal Taxes a Factor
And personal taxes may be another factor.
"It plays a role," said Joseph R. Sullivan, the newly arrived vice president and chief financial officer of Comnet Corp., a computer services firm based in the District. Sullivan, who moved to the Washington area last month from Lakewood, Ohio, said he is temporarily renting in the District and has not yet decided where in the area he will make his home. "The cost of housing is a factor, and tax rates affect the cost of living in an area."
Sullivan said he is aware of the differences in local tax rates and that "many people have counseled me to only live in the District if the convenience or the pleasures of living in the city overwhelm the tax disadvantages," he said, adding that "the final determination depends on the quality of life."
But, deciding which location causes the least taxing pain can be difficult. For example, personal habits can make a difference.
Beer drinkers might note that the beer tax is highest in Virginia, at $7.95 a barrel, compared with $2.79 in Maryland and $2.25 in the District. Smokers would see that the city of Alexandria imposes a 10-cent tax on every 20 cigarettes, while Arlington County charges 5 cents per pack, and the state of Virginia imposes an additional 2.5 cents. A Prince William County motorcycle owner pays a $6 annual registration fee, while a Falls Church resident pays $15. The District imposes the highest sales taxes, but exempts products such as food sold in grocery stores, prescription and nonprescription drugs, laundry and dry cleaning.
But, for some individuals there is a handsdown favorite. The District exempts from local income tax members of Congress, presidential appointees and Supreme Court justices, as well as congressional staffers who remain bona fide residents of another state.
The report also compares the overall tax burdens in each of the local jurisdictions by calculating the total of four major state and local taxes for a hypothetical family at different income levels, based on a number of assumptions.
The study uses a hypothetical family of four, with one wage-earning spouse, one spouse with no income, and two school-age children. The Department of Finance and Revenue then calculated what the family would have paid in 1984 state and local income, sales, real estate and automobile-related taxes in each of the 11 local jurisdictions if they had annual income of $15,000, $25,000, $35,000, $50,000 and $75,000. See accompanying chart.
For purposes of the study, the department made assumptions about the nature of the family's income, the amount of spending subject to sales tax, and the kind of house and car owned at each income level. Alexandria Costliest for Some
Based on these assumptions, the study found that Alexandria had the highest overall tax burden for families in the two lowest income categories, and that the District had the highest tax burdens in the three highest income groups.
Alexandria also had the second-highest tax burdens at the three highest income levels. Alexandria has no income tax, but does have the highest property taxes and highest automobile taxes at each income level for the hypothetical families used as models.
"We think we have a very equitable tax position in the market," said Richard M. Flaherty, director of the Economic Development Project for Alexandria, which is jointly sponsored by the city and the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.
Readers of the District's report should "be cautious" about hypothetical models based on certain assumptions, he said, because "anybody could work out hypothetical circumstances that would make one jurisdiction look better than the other."
The District report agrees, warning, "It should be emphasized that the use of different assumptions and the use of different tax categories will, of course, result in different tax burdens at each income level for each jurisdiction."
For example, to calculate income tax, the study assumes that a family with annual income of $35,000 earns $34,000 in wages or salaries and $1,000 in interest income, has an average itemized deduction of $7,879 and an Individual Retirement Account deduction of $2,250.
To calculate automobile taxes, the study assumes that a family with $15,000 a year has a 1979 Ford Mustang II with a trade-in value of $2,725, while assuming that a family with $75,000 a year has two cars, one 1983 BMW 528e with a trade-in value of $16,650 and one 1982 Ford Fairmont with a trade-in value of $4,025.
For property taxes, the study assumed that a family of median income lives in housing of average cost and used that ratio to calculate property values for each income level in each jurisdiction. Sales tax burdens were derived from the Internal Revenue Service optional sales tax tables for 1984, extended to reflect the burdens for the $50,000- and $75,000-a-year families.
The appearance of high personal taxes does not seem to scare business away from Alexandria. On the contrary, the city added about 2 million square feet of occupied office and warehouse space in the last 12 months, up dramatically from an average growth rate during the 1970s and early 1980s of 300,000 additional square feet a year, Flaherty said. "Not only we, but the businesses that come here, think we're very competitive," he said, adding that business location decisions turn more on other factors.
One recently arrived executive said taxes played no role in his decision to rent a town house in Alexandria, while maintaining a home in New Jersey. Charles J. Prizer, who joined Clean Sites Inc. of Alexandria earlier this month, said that one of his priorities was "to live within walking distance of my office" for the first time. "Alexandria also has a jogging path, and I'm a runner."
The lowest overall local tax burdens at the $15,000-, $50,000- and $75,000-a-year income levels were in Charles County, while the lowest overall tax burdens at the $25,000- and $35,000-a-year income levels are in Loudoun County, according to the District report. Charles Has Lowest Sales Tax
Charles County consistently has the lowest real estate taxes and sales taxes at each income level, according to the study.
The report shows that the Virginia jurisdictions all have the lowest individual income taxes at every income level.
The District imposes the highest overall tax burdens in the three top income categories, and ranks third-highest in the bottom two income groups, the report shows. The District's tax burdens rank above the Washington-area average in every category, and exceed the average of 50 cities across the country, according to Department of Revenue and Finance. The national comparison is made by calculating the tax burdens for families at each income level for the largest city in each state, and is reported in a separate study recently released by the department.
Neither study compares the public services provided by local or national jurisdictions, nor do they analyze the different tax populations or average income levels of the different areas.
But the District reports do describe the unique and difficult situation of the capital city, which must provide the services of both a state and a city while drawing on a much smaller tax base.
With about 626,900 residents in 1984 and 60 square miles, the District is responsible for city services as well as state functions such as welfare programs, courts and correctional institutions, physical and mental health care and a "state" university.
Yet only 319,079 local income tax returns were filed in 1983, the last year for which figures are available. Many Exempted in D.C.
Not only does the District exempt many federal officials from local income taxes, but the city also is the only jurisdiction in the nation prohibited by law from taxing the income of nonresidents who work there. Both Virginia and Maryland tax the income earned within their borders by nonresidents.
Because of all the restrictions, about 65 percent of the workers in the city are exempt from local income taxes, said Kwasi Holman, executive director of the District's Office of Business and Economic Development. "Then, too, the District has a relatively high percentage of low-income taxpayers, which further limits the District's revenue-raising capacity," the nationwide comparison report said.
Additionally, 56.2 percent of its land was tax-exempt in 1984 because it is federal or District public property, including parks and streets.
"To provide an adequate level of funding for these state-local responsibilities, the tax rates applied to the limited tax bases are often higher," the nationwide comparison report said.
"We try to maximize that base," Holman said.