The Howard County Council took the following action at its Dec. 17 meeting. For more information, call 992-2001.

ASSESSMENT CAP -- The council, in a 4 to 1 vote, adopted a bill that will limit property tax assessment increases to no more than 5 percent a year. Under the new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, homeowners will pay higher property taxes if the county raises the tax rate, but if the rate remains the same their taxes could go up no more than 5 percent a year, the maximum annual increase in the assessed value of a home under the new cap.

The council bill was prompted by action of the Maryland General Assembly, which in its last session directed counties to set a 10 percent cap on annual property tax assessment increases by Jan. 1. Counties were given the option of establishing lower ceilings.

Council member Charles Feaga, the bill's sponsor, said increasing voter resentment about tax increases made the cap necessary. He said homeowners in his western county district have complained to him about tax assessments that have risen from 45 to 100 percent in a three-year period.

Feaga, who calls his bill "truth in taxing" legislation, said the ceiling will force council members to rely less on property tax assessments when searching for revenue sources and make them confront the issue of higher tax rates. "I think we're going to face lawsuits in the future if we continue using the assessment as a hidden way to collect tax," Feaga said.

Council member C. Vernon Gray, who voted against the cap, said the 5 percent ceiling will reduce the county's ability to raise revenue at a crucial time. Gray favored a 10 percent ceiling, saying it could be lowered when the county's financial situation improves.

At its recent meeting, the council also considered a bill that would limit assessment increases to 10 percent a year. At a public hearing on the two bills, several residents said they fear that a cap could interfere with the county's ability to provide services to constituents.

The county's current property tax rate is $2.45 per $100 of the assessed value of a residence. Homeowners whose property is being assessed this year can expect property values to rise between 8 and 10 percent a year in the next three years, state tax officials said.