Deluged with constituent complaints about high property tax bills and mired in intergovernmental bickering over who should get the blame, members of Maryland's General Assembly are struggling to come up with a new way to assess and collect the money that provides Maryland counties with most of their income.
Among the more than 50 property tax bills filed this session is one that would subject only new homebuyers - those, its opponents say, who are least able to afford high taxes - to increased property assessments.
Other proposals include one forcing counties to raise their tax rates, rather than allowing the state to raise assessments; and a bill that would let a whole neighorhood in on the assessment increase of each individual household.
Even Gov. Marvin Mandel plans to propose his own version. Many of the bills appear to be unconstitutional, and some are not seriously considered even by their sponsors.
What the numerous proposals reflect is deep voter resentment throughout the state over inflated property values that have increased homeowner assessments by 50 per cent over the past three years, and boosted property taxes without local governments even having to raise their tax rates.
"When I get 100 letters and telegrams every day, you better believe I'm doing something about it," said Del. Harold Louis Bachman (D-Anne Arundel), who has introduced three pieces of legislation to change the assessment procedure. "It's an issue taking away their cigarette money, but the food out of their belly."
People are "getting up on their hind haunches and raising Cain," Bachman said. They are complaining to Assembly delegates and senators who, in turn, have drawn up these bills as the first step in the dizzying legislative process that may yield a change in the assessment system.
That change would come just four years after a court-ordered overhauls transformed the county-by-county assessment process into a state-controlled system to insure uniformity. The new system, with only one method used across the state to determine property value for local taxes, has worked so well that assessments have uniformly kept pace with inflation.
But, as Del. Gerald F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) said he todl his county assessor: "There is pretty much the same appreciation for your (the assessor's) efficiency as there was in France for Dr. Guillotine and the efficiency he brought to capital punishment."
With no discernible exceptions legislators feel they have been unjustly blamed for high taxes. Whether the tax rate is $4.11 per $100 of assessed value (county tax rate plus a statewide surcharge), as in Prince George's, or $2.60, as in Washington County, citizens have brought their assessment woes to the General Assembly rather than local government because the state assesses value. Many legislators feel that the county governments, some of which have lately styled themselves as citizen advocates in sympathy with constituents, should have to take more of the heat.
"My whole problem with this assessment thing is that it's a blackdoor approach to taxing," complained Del. Donald F. Munson (R-Washington).
Speaker of the House John Hanson Briscoe (D-St. Mary's) claims that the counties are passing the buck to the state and "living off re-assessments." In his county, Briscoe said, property taxes have been reduced by 15 cents because the tax base has grown through increased assessments.
The assessors themselves say they are none too pleased at being labeled cruel bureacrats simply because they have followed the law and assessed L. Shoemaker, director of the stated Department of Assessment and Taxation, has asked the Assembly to allow his office to make new assessments every three years rather than annually and require assessors to receive official certification.
"There isn't really any difference in the uproar over the last three years except the area," contended Shoemaker. "There's always too much controversy any year if you ask me; this year in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, last year in Baltimore City and before that in Baltimore County."
What is different this year is the plethora of solutions for an issue that is considered one of the biggest and most confounding problems facing the General Assembly. Mandel had promised a group of 100 Prince George's taxpayers who had lobbied him at Annapolis this week that his proposal to postpone the deadline. His chief legislative aide, Alan M. Wilner explained that: "It really takes some time to think it through. You can come up with any kind of scheme that you like, but it is practical, will it be Constitutional?"
The schemes seem to be aimed at one target: to restrict somehow the yearly rise in property assessments, especially in inflationary periods. They solutions are imaginative.
One bill introduced by Munson would freeze assessments until the property was sold. The result of such a law, according to the assessor, would be to make it difficult if not impossible for young people to buy a home.
"The older people who own homes would escape while young people who can least afford it, would have to pay for the reassessment when they purchased their first homes. It would make it difficult if not impossible for the young to buy a house unless they were independently wealthy," Shoemaker said.
Munson himself calls the bill one of his "fallback positions" in case his one "serious bill" is not passed. Munson would like proerty assessments frozen indefinitely so that local county governments "raise taxes by raising the rate not by waiting for property assessments to go up."
Another bill, submitted by Del. Dennis C. McCoy (D-Baltimore City), would force the state to send notices a month in advance to all the neighbors of an owner whose property is to be reassessed. That, Shoemaker said, "would be an administrative nightmare."
Some of the bills are redundant. There are at least three bills, nearly identical, that would hold assessments to 40 per cent of the market value rather than the current 50 per cent.
"The point is taxpayers are up in arms and some may have to move out because of assessements." said Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City), who heads the House Ways and Means Committee that will probably negotiate the final solution.
Cardin prefers to give deductions for those in need by tying property tax bills to incomes would receive an automatic tax reduction, similar to the federal income tax system.