The D.C. Tax Revision Commission recommended yesterday a "comprehensive and balanced" overhaul of the city's tangled tax system that the commission said could raise $16 milliion a year in additional city revenues, and provide some personal tax relief without driving businesses out of the city.
The precariously balanced tax package, several portions of which face almost certain opposition from various interest groups in the city, includes a plan to impose a quasi-property tax on currently tax-exempt institutions such as churches, hospitals, universities and museums.
The 20-member citizens advisory panel also recommended extending the city's current 5 per cent general sales tax to include "nonprofessional" services such as dry cleaning, laundary, barber and beauty services.
The commission rejected - after first tentatively approving - a recommendation that would tax businesses at a higher rate than residential property, a so-called "classified property tax" structure. It also asked a change in the formula for taxing the income of banks and savings and loan institutions that would, in effect, reduce by an average of 3 per cent the amount of taxes those institutions pay on their net income each year.
At the same time, however, the commission called for a change in the taxing formula for utilities that would increase the amount of money those firms pay to the city annually. The increases probably would be passed on to consumers, but those consumers most affected, the commission contends, would be the federal government and other currently tax-exempt organizations rather than homeowners and apartment dwellers.
The recommendations made to the City Council yesterday were virtually identical to those tentatively adopted by the panel late last summer and first disclosed publicly by The Washington Post on Sept. 24.
Disclosure of the tentative proposals sparked considerable controversy in the business and religious communities. The Post reported Oct. 1 that, partially because of strong opposition from the businessmen, the committee reversed itself and decided not to recommend a classified property tax.
Taken as a whole, the package of nearly five dozen recommendations made to the City Council provided what the commission had found during its year-long, $200,000 study was the best way equitably to alter city taxing policies, according to commission chairman Emmett J. Rice, a senior vice president of the National Bank of Washington.
"There are no easy new sources of revenue to be uncovered. There's no pot of gold unearthed by our research," Rice said. "There are trade-offs in about everything you do. I suppose there were a number of things we considered about which many of the commissioners simply decided that the disadvantages of making those changes outweighed the benefits and should not be made."
Two major recommendations made by the commission - an increase in the federal payment and the imposition of a commuter tax - are beyond the power of the City Council to institute.
Rice noted that the amount of additional money that could be brought in without such Congressionally governed tax changes, $16 million, was only a small portion of the city's $1.3 billion annual operating budget.
Asked if that were an indication that there may be little room for increasing city taxes without politically groups, Rice responded: "I'M afraid that that is the implicit conclusion that the commission came to, in the sense that we didn't recommend taxes that would result in substantial growth inrevenues."
Rice said that without the commuter tax, the increased federal payment and the classified property tax (which some contended would have shifted some of the city's tax load to suburbanites who own property in the city), most of the additional money would come from city residents.
"I don't see any obvious or blatant instances where our proposals export substantial taxes," Rice said. "My own opinion is that we were simply not in agreement on the imposition of taxes which would on balance be tax-exporting."
The commission's year-long effort was the first review of the city's tax system in modern history, and is likely to form the basis for future City Council's efforts to amend the current tax laws, which are largely a patchwork - put together by Congress before the city was granted limited home rule.
The classified property tax provoked strong opposition from businessmen who contended that any increase in taxes would drive some commercial operations out of the city and discourage new ones from locating here.
The quasi-tax on currently tax-exempt organizations - called a payment in lieu of taxes - has been sharply criticized by many members of the city's religious community, including the Rev. Andrew Fowler, executive secretary of the Committee of 100 Ministers. "Taxing the churches is like trying to box with God," Fowler said yesterday.
The plan, similar to legislation already introduced by Council member Arrington Dixon (D-four), would require the institutions to pay 10 per cent of what they would have to pay if they were not property tax-exempt. The city would bring in an additional $7 million a year if all the currently tax-exempt properties made 10 per cent payments, the commission said.