What the Montgomery County Council can give, it can take away -- and then some -- in one fell swoop.
The council tentatively approved a 1-cent cut in the property tax rate yesterday, meaning that a resident with a $300,000 home could expect about $30 to be trimmed from the next year's bills.
But in the same resolution, it raised the energy levy enough to wipe out the savings an average homeowner might realize from the tax relief. And, in a separate straw vote, it decided to raise the tax on "admissions and amusement," which would make it slightly more expensive to play a video game or see a movie in the county.
The council is expected to take final votes on these matters today, when Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) unveils the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who submitted a $3.3 billion operating budget proposal to the council March 15, said yesterday that revenue increases were unnecessary. "We don't need to raise taxes to balance the budget," he said.
Council members defended their tax increases -- which would generate $41 million a year -- on three fronts: as a means of paying for the property tax cut, to make up for reductions in state and federal subsidies and to offer services that Duncan did not seek to fund and that residents expect.
Several said that the energy tax, which the council tripled a year ago, is more progressive because it is levied largely on entities that don't pay property taxes, such as federal agencies with offices in the county.
The property tax relief is spurred in part by rising assessments that provide the county with more money but create a political problem. A 1990 charter amendment says the county must hold property tax receipts level, with adjustments for inflation, new construction and some other factors, unless seven of the nine council members agree to override the provision.
For a decade, the council heeded the charter limit; but in recent years, with property taxes surging as a result of rising home values, it has opted to override. Republican anti-tax activist Robin Ficker has placed a referendum proposal on the November ballot that would eliminate the override option -- an opportunity for voters to register their displeasure with rising taxes in a lasting manner.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who suggested last month that the council cut property taxes and raise the energy tax, said the council needed to respond to residents' concerns about the tax impact of rising real estate values and take a step toward obeying the charter limit.
He initially proposed cutting the effective property tax rate of $1.073 per $100 of assessed value by 2 cents. The owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would have paid $60 less in property tax and $19 more in energy tax under his proposal.
But the council instead reduced the relief to 1 cent and raised the energy levy enough to gain some revenue. Thus the average hit of the energy tax increase for residential users went from Andrews's $19 to the current $37.
The energy tax increase would provide $39.6 million in revenue. Raising the admissions and amusement tax would generate $1.15 million, which the resolution says must be used to promote arts and humanities. The property tax cut would cost a little over $10 million, leaving the remainder of the new money for the council to apply toward the budget.
Ficker, who attended part of yesterday's session, said the measure as approved was "typical of this council: What started out as Phil Andrews's revenue-neutral measure turned into a tax increase."
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) was the only lawmaker to oppose the resolution, even though, as chairman of the council's Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, she earlier had endorsed Andrews's proposal. "I do not believe that we have adequately told the public that the proposal before us is a dramatic increase in the energy tax," she said, noting that a public hearing on the issue was held on the assumption of a tax-for-tax tradeoff.
The measure as approved was similar to a formula announced last week by Silverman, meaning that there was insufficient time for a public hearing before yesterday's straw vote. "It was not a secret proposal," Silverman said after the council session. "I think people were aware of it."