The Maryland Court of Appeals last week upheld the constitutionality of a tax that Prince George's County levied on its apartment dwellers for two years beginning in July, 1975.
In so doing, the court refused to accept the contention of a group of tenants, landlords, and rental management companies who had argued that the tax constituted a property tax, and that it did not meet the standards of fairness which state law requires of property taxes.
The tenants' tax, the court ruled, is in fact an excise tax, and not a property tax - in other words, it is a tax on a transaction, not a tax on real goods.
"The keystone of the appelants" challenge to the Prince George's County occupancy tax . . . is whether the tax is a direct tax on the tenants's property or whether it constitutes an indirect excise tax on the privilege of using or occupying a rented mulfifamily residential unit," according to the opinion of Judge Irving A. Levine.
The opinion also says that "The occupancy tax . . . is in name and effect a valid excise on the privilege of occupying a residential dwelling unit."
The tax, first levied in 1975 after the state legislature granted Prince George's County special taxing authority, was allowed to expire June 30, and Prince George's County officials insist that they have no intention of reinstituting it.
"We would not use the tenant tax again," John Lally, an aide to County Executive Winfield M. Kelly, said earlier this week.
"We never did want a direct tax on the tenants," Lally said. "The whole idea of the tax originally was to shift the burden of taxes from the property owners to someone else."
Lally said that studies made by the Prince George's County government indicated that occupants of garden apartment units paid, through their rents, approximately one-fifth of the county taxes that would be paid by the owner of a condominium unit of the same size.
The reason: Many garden apartments are assessed by the state as commercial ventures, often resulting in assessments that are far below the units' value as real property.
The tenants' tax was designed to bridge this gap by putting into the country's treasury 2 per cent of most tenants' rents in 1975-76, and 4 per cent in 1976-77. The administration of the program, however, soon developed nightmarish complications, and politically the levy proved even more unpopular then most officials had expected.
According to Louis Pohoryles, attorney for the tenants bringing the case, there will probably be no attempt to take the suit to the federal courts. Pohoryles also said that he knew of no jurisdiction, aside from Prince George's, that had attempted to levy a similar tax.