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In hard times, delegate seeks property tax cap

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — A Cecil County Republican is seeking a property tax cap following the approval of a rate that will mean a 10 percent increase in payments next year.

"Not a day goes by when people don't come to me and say they're being taxed out of their homes," Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr. said.

The county Board of Commissioners approved keeping the rate at 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, but rising assessments created a 10 percent increase in the amount that will be collected.

"Admittedly, we are feeling the same type of pinch as consumers," said Craig Whiteford, the county's budget manager.

The county budget, which is expected to be $164.8 million if approved by county commissioners, is balanced through July 2009, but likely will have to be trimmed in the future, Mr. Whiteford said. He also emphasized the county was not raising its property tax rate, but that it's home assessments were increasing.

Mr. Smigiel and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, have re-filed a proposal that would cap assessment increases at 5 percent.

Their proposal passed the state Senate in 2006 but died in the House that year.

Leaders in other Maryland counties have considered increasing taxes, cutting school spending or withholding raises from county workers, as a result of a souring real estate market, which provides governments with a large source of income through property taxes.

Montgomery County lawmakers have proposed increasing the county's property tax and cutting services to help close a $300 million gap in next year's $4.3 billion budget,

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, proposed increasing the county's hotel tax, from 7 percent to 10 percent, to help close an expected $6 million shortfall in the county's budget.

"I think there's a real confluence of issues creating some fiscal stress," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, which lobbies on behalf of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore city in Annapolis.

The state's increasing of the personal income tax exemption also has cut into county income.

In addition, state lawmakers recently voted to cut increases in public education spending known as the "Thornton" formula, which passes directly from the state to the counties.

Mr. Smigiel said an economic downturn is the worst time to increase taxes because residents are already getting strapped with higher gas prices and food costs.

Four Maryland counties have tax caps in place, and no county is allowed to increase its assessment by 10 percent a year, according to the state's homestead tax credit. The counties are Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Talbot and Wicomico.

Democratic lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to repeal Prince George's County's stringent property tax cap.