A special District of Columbia citizens' advisory commission is considering sweeping revisions in the city's tax laws that could change the amount of money paid for everything from property taxes and utility bills to death taxes and haircuts.
Museums, churches and private libraries would no longer be fully tax exempt, and Congress would be asked to withdraw the special property tax exeption it has given to such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution and and Howard University, under proposals now before the D.C. Tax Revision Commission.
As would be expected, one proposal stresses the need for the long soughtafter commuter tax that Congress has persistently opposed. But even without that tax, some of the tax-law changes under consideration would have the net result of increasing the amount of revenues the city receives from suburban residents who work, shop or own property in the city.
"It's a very District-oriented package. It tends to export our taxes," said Robert D. Ebel, executive director of the 20-member commission, which is expected to forward its recommendations to the City Council by the middle of next month.
"One thing that it says about this city is that the city's tax law hasn't kept up with changes in federal laws and it hasn't really been responseive to the changing structure of the economy of the District," Ebel said.
"This is the first time a home-rule government has studied its tax laws, and most of our laws are the result of congressional patchwork," said Ebel. "We're just trying to look at it ourselves and see what can be done."
Ebel said many of the recommendations, more than 50 in all, would probably be made in basically the same form as they are now.
The commission's chairman, Emmett J. Rice, senior vice president of the National Bank of Washington, said, however, "It's bound to be different in the end." Rice refused further comment.
One of the major changes proposed by the commission in its current drafts would be to scuttle the city's present property tax rate structure, which is now the same for both commercial and residential property owners, and institute a higher rate for businesses.
Recent reports by the D.C auditor have disclosed that an increasingly larger portion of the city's property tax burden is falling on homeowners because the assessed values of residential properties are going up at a faster rate than those of commercial properties.
A recommendation that has tentatively been adopted by the commission would create two separate property tax rates, one for residences and second, higher one of commercial properties. The commission recommend a second, higher one for commercial [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] two be no greater, however, than 10 per cen.
If such a dual rate structure were adopted, as much as 90 per cent of the increases in property taxes would be shifted to nonresidents, supporters of this "classified property tax" plan argue. This is because many of the commercial property owners are suburbanites who rent out property in the District.
Michael Bell, a staff economist for the commission, said that the increased rates on commercial properties would probably drive "a slight number" from the city. But, he said, it could also stimulate housing growth in the city by making housing less costly.
An eight part recommendation on property tax assessment practices urges that some procedures be changed in order to make the assessment system more closely reflect recent changes in Washington's housing market.
Those changes include possibly redrawing the boundaries of the 56 supposedly homogeneous groupings the city uses as a basis for reassessments, publication of an assessment manual and giving more weight in commercial assessments to the recent sale prices of surrounding buildings than to the income potential of the buildings, as is currently done.
The commission does not call for a change in the city's current 5 per cent general sales tax. But it does suggest that the base of that tax be extended to include all services except those that are deemed to be "professional, technical and scientific."
Such a change would bring an additional $6.5 million into the city's coffers and spread the tax to such services as dry cleaning, laundry, barber and beauty services. Under the current law, only the sale of goods, excluding some food, drugs and medicine, is taxed.
Another change in the application of sales tax would be on utility bills, where some purchasers now pay a 5 per cent sales tax but many - including the federal government and other tax-exempt organizations - do not.
In addition, the utility companies now pay a 6 per cent gross receipts tax.
Commission members felt this tax as currently applied discriminatory and thus are calling for elimination of the sales tax on natural gas, telephone and electricity bills. In its place, the commission would impose on 8 to 11 per cent gross receipts tax on the utility companies.
Commission staff members said that the effect of this change would be to distribute more evenly utility tax revenues among all types of users and also increase the amount of taxes paid by the utility companies.
Pepco, for example, which during 1976 paid $21 million in gross receipts and sales taxes, would have paid $6 million more under the proposals. Of the $251 million in Pepco revenues raised from Washington customers that year, commission staff members pointed out, $129 million came from people who are currently exempt from paying D.C. sales tax.
While utilities would be getting an increase in taxes, those on banks and savings and loan institutions could go down by about $3 million a year.
This would come from changing current 6 per cent tax on the gross earnings of banks and 2 per cent tax on the gross earnings of savings and loan institutions. In its place, the commission would impose a 9.9 per cent tax on the net income of both institutions, the same as the tax now levied on other businesses in the city.
James D. Vitarello, director of the city's neighborhood Reinvestment Commission and a member of the tax revision commission, said the current tax puts banks and financial institutions in the city at a disadvantage with other area institutions because the D.C. tax is higher.
Vitarello said that in the case of some smaller banks and savings and loans, the gross receipts tax takes away as much as half of the profits.
"These institutions do play a key role in housing and economic development in the city, and they do have a legitimate case that they are now paying very high taxes and very disproportionate taxes," Vitarello said.
Under the proposed tax change, there would be an effective reduction of about 3 per cent in the amount of taxes the banks pay on their net income.
The proposals allow a five-year transition period for the changeover to the new system. However, lending institutions that agreed to participate in a program to make more housing loans in the city in general and in certain parts of the city specifically, could switch to the new lower tax rate immediately, Vitarello said.
The plan to tax churches, museums and other currently tax-exempt properties is in two parts. For those institutions such as churches, museums, schools and libraries that are current tax-exempted by the city, an alternative form of payment will be imposed.
Owners of these properties would have to pay the city 10 per cent of what they would pay if they were taxed like all other properties.
Another several dozen properties - such as national museums, civic groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the D.C. Medical Society, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Howard University - have been exempted from paying property taxes by special acts of Congress.
The commission asks that Congress withdraw these exemptions. Some of the properties might be subsequently exempted by the city and only have to make a 10 per cent alternate payment, commission staff said. But others would probably lose their tax-exempt status and have to pay a full property tax. The city expects to bring in $3 million from the currently tax-exempted properties.
The commission also asks that the current inheritance tax be replaced with an estate tax similar to that imposed by the federal government, and that the city bring its income-tax form and credit and deduction systems in line with those on the federal income tax form. "If nothing else," Ebel said, "that would make the D.C. form a lot easier to fill out."