The Prince George's County apartment tax will die soon - young, substantially uncollected, and still sparking the antagonisms that have dominated its brief existence.
When County Executive Winfield M. Kelly jr. created the special tax on apartment renters two years ago, he called it a "stop gap" measure designed solely as an alternative to more property tax increases. That may have been the kindest thing ever said about it.
Landlords and tenants despised the 4 per cent tax so much that they formed an odd alliance to fight it. The owners said it placed them at a "competitive disadvantage" with neighboring counties. The renters said it was "double taxation" for them. Both groups called it a "ripoff" and said they would celebrate the day it vanished.
But today, as the tax approaches its June 30 expiration date, the frictions persist. There have been warnings from the county administration that the end of the tax may be folowed by a period of rent gouging, and rebuttals from the apartment industry that Kelly is out to besmirch their image to the end.
In this case Kelly, who is a landlord himself, has taken on the role of tenant spokesman. He has advised his staff to go public with his concern that some landlords may attempt to reap unwarranted benefits from the expiration of the tax.
"The fear is that since the landlords collect the tax and then pass it on the county, they might keep collecting the tax in the form of an unannounced rent increase," explained John Lally, Kelly's chief political aide.
"Or the landlords could send out notices saying, 'Great news! Your rentis only going up 2 per cent,' when in fact it would be a 6 per cent hike if they didn't eliminate the money they were collecting for the tax."
Kelly and his aides not that they are not making accusations. "It is just something that people should be forewarned about," said Kelly recently. "It wouldn't do any good to talk about the possibility after the fact."
For the apartment managers of Prince George's County, however, Kelly's warning is taken as an insult. "I think that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Caroline A. Lewis, director of legal affairs for the Metro Apartment Owners Association. "Here we've been fighting this tax for two years, and now he says we might take advantage of it. The only way we're going to take advantage of it is by advertising - loud and clear - that it won't be around anymore."
Lewis said apartment owners in Prince George's have "suffered immeasurably" from the tax. She cited as evidence a housing study being one by the Council of Governments which shows Prince George's with an apartment vacancy rate of 5.6 per cent, the highest in the metropolitan area.
"Our problem has not just been attracting new tenants but also in keeping our present tenants," said Lewis. "The expiration of that tax will at least help us do that. To raise rents at the time it goes out would be foolish. I think it's almost funny that Kelly would be worried about that, particularly since he wanted to keep the tax until the end anyway."
Kelly's warning may serve one useful purpose for apartment managers - alert them to the fact that the tax is being dropped. A survey of 15 major apartment complex managers last week found that only three were aware that the tax will not be collected during the next fiscal year.
"I had no idea the tax was going out," said Lois Crim, manage of the 504-unit Heritage Square Apartments in Riverdale. "That's the best news I've had in weeks. I don't know why I wouldn't have known about it. Maybe it's because no one really believes it."
Margaret Summitt, resident manager of the 3,000-unit Spring Hill Lake apartments in Greenbelt, was similarly pleased with the news. "I think we should have a party, yes, indeed," she said. Summitt said she was sending out rent increase notices to many of her tenants this month. "But this has absolutely nothing to do with the apartment tax. This just happens to be the anniversary date for many tenants."
Summitt said she "disliked" the county requirement that landlords collect the tax and then pass it over to the county. "I never forced it with my tenants," she said. Several other landlords apparently felt the same way. While the county does not have exact statistics on the number of delinquent apartment taxpayers, there were said to be nearly 30,000 - or one-third of the total number of renters in the county - during the fiscal year of the tax.
During the last year, according to county attorney James C. Chapin, more than 800 tenants were sent notices warning that they were late in paying the tax, and about 200 of those were eventually taken to court.
"That number is the result of selective enforcement," admitted Chapin. "We knew we couldn't sue everyone, so we chose representative taxpayers throughout the county."