After a parade of bureaucrats and officials spent four hours dissecting the 42 ways property taxes could be changed, it took a tree surgeon from Broadneck to sum up the problem for Maryland taxpayers: "The property tax has become a penalty for the sin of owning a home."
Colby Rucker's of observation wasn't too far from that of Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) who chaired the hearing today at the House Ways and Means Committee.
"The property tax has become a detriment to home ownership," Cardin said before he convened the hearing on the assessment process. "We really can't go on like this."
Cardin scheduled a single day marathon hearing for all the bills to alter property tax assessments and consequently reduce property taxes for Maryland's counties and Baltimore City. Unlike the other major issues facing the General Assembly this year, there is no consensus for a solution. The officials who testified proved that.
Two basic criticism were repeated endlessly: with inflation pushing up the assessed value of property by 50 per cent in three years in Maryland, a homeowner can be taxed out a home without the government ever raising the rate and local governments are far too dependent on property taxes to pay for county services.
"The property tax is a farce. . .the county is using my house to insure that it's credit is secure, to pay for services I don't need," Rucker said.
The most angry attack on the county government's role in this taxing morass was from Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal, who was also the only official to earn a round of applause from the audience.
"The frustation is really what's gotten them angry," Pascal said of his taxpaying citizens. "They can't yell at an appointed official like an elected official. Counties should raise taxes by raising the tax and give citizens someone to shout at. That system doesn't exist today."
Like the other county executives and the Baltimore mayor, Pascal depends on the property tax for most of his county's revenue. Like the others, he has also benefited from the three-year-old change in the assessment procedure that has brought uniform annual assessments to the state that accurately keep pace with inflation and produce additional revenue without the need to raise the tax rate.
There were some eight categories of bills discussed today, a number of them considered to be unconstitutional by the attorney general. Of those that might pass a legal challenge, a majority would change the "inflation allowance" of assessments, which determines what proportion of a house's value will be used in levying taxes. Currently the inflation allowance is 50 per cent so only 50 per cent of a house's assessed value is used to calculate property taxes.
The bill proposed by Gov. Marvin Mandel would change that allowance only for homes, not industrial or commmercial properties, and consequently reduce the amount of taxes collected by the counties. At the same time, the citizens in those counties would be paying less.
According to the governor's calculations, the two Washington suburban counties would lose the greatest amount of money. Prince George's would lose $8.59 million and Montgomery County $10.2 million. Pascal's budget would be out some $2.7 million.