A panel being set up by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to examine how to pay for services provided by Montgomery County's municipalities and the county government is likely to consider a new system of paying for the county's regional park system.
The panel will begin meeting within the next several weeks and will be expected to make recommendations by the end of the year, said Timothy Firestine, the county's chief administrative officer. The panel's members are expected to come from various county departments as well as the two largest cities, Gaithersburg and Rockville.
The regional park system has been losing income in recent years as the cities began annexing property from the county's unincorporated areas, with County Council permission, and then taxed those residents for city-run parks. The side effect was to decrease the tax base for the county's Department of Park and Planning.
Delegates and state senators representing Gaithersburg and Rockville have expressed concern that the county might try to tax city residents to help pay for the regional park system, which includes large parks in Cabin John, Wheaton and Germantown.
Firestine said that there probably would not be a new tax but that there could be a change in the way the cities pay the county for services, depending on what the task force recommends.
Residents of the county's unincorporated areas pay a special tax to help subsidize neighborhood and regional parks run by the county parks department. Montgomery County has a multi-layered system of parks and local government, with some parks run by the cities and others run by the parks agency, which reports to the County Council and is governed by a bi-county commission shared with neighboring Prince George's County.
Current law bars the county from collecting a parks tax from residents who live inside city boundaries set by 1965. But it allows the county to collect from annexed sections of cities, even though the county has not done that.
Early this month, Montgomery's House delegation in the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill that would bar the county from collecting a parks tax from city residents. It was sponsored by lawmakers from District 17, which includes Gaithersburg and Rockville, and could affect about 21,000 taxpayers in those cities. The bill is now before the Senate delegation for consideration.
The responsibilities of the cities and the county, and who pays for what, haven't been examined in 10 years, Firestine said.
"We will try to see if there are places where their [city] taxpayers are paying for things they shouldn't have to, and readjust that," said Firestine, adding, "We want to start with a more open discussion . . . a new tax isn't the way to do it because it creates inequities among residents of municipalities."
The county will try to determine who uses regional parks before trying to figure out who should pay, Firestine said. "If regional park usage is heavy by city residents, maybe the city owes the county more than would be collected only from annexed property," he said.
There is no firm estimate of the revenue, but some officials said the tax could be about $200 per household per year.
The issue has roiled some political leaders in the county. District 17 Del. Kumar P. Barve (D) has accused officials of trying to impose a form of double taxation.
County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said last week that there are no plans to begin collecting the parks tax anytime soon, and that it is possible the tax may never be imposed. Its fate, she said, is tied to discussions of the task force and to future decisions by Leggett, the council, the cities and other lawmakers.
Praisner also said she was concerned that the bill making its way through the General Assembly would bar the county from ever collecting a regional parks tax.
"We are saying, 'Don't bother now.' . . . Maybe in the future the Metropolitan District Tax will be the vehicle for whatever we agree to, and we don't know what that is at this point," Praisner said. "Nobody is under any risk. We aren't going to collect the tax now."