- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Having failed to rein in spending for the past two years as the economy turned southward, Mayor Williams and the D.C. Council have ginned up a bad law, ostensibly to rid communities of blighted housing and vacant lots. However, the law is another sign that the mayor and the council, whose inaugurations are this week, have returned to their old tax-and-spend ways.
The emergency legislation, titled the Real Property Classification Clarification Emergency Act of 2002 and approved on Dec. 3, is a punitive law. Beginning tomorrow, property owners will be levied $5 per $100 of assessed value on vacant residential and commercial properties. For example, if a D.C. homeowner also owns a $300,000 house elsewhere on her block and that house is unoccupied and in need of considerable renovation, the owner will be penalized $15,000 on the unoccupied house. Also, owners of rental properties would be forced to pay the additional tax if those homes are unoccupied for a year.
"I opposed the law," said Finance and Revenue Chairman Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "The emergency bill we passed on Dec. 3 was an effort to make the best out of a bad situation. But it is a bad law, and I hope we repeal it."
So do we. Only in recent years has the city shed its reputation as inhospitable to businesses and families. High tax and crime rates and troubled public schools were the top 3 reasons not to live and do business in the city. The tide began turning in 1998, when the congressionally instituted control board decided to restructure taxes and violent-crime rates dropped. The three-year-long housing and construction booms prove the control board was on the right track. Raising property taxes and punishing landowners could reverse those trends.
The council, however, will have the opportunity to repeal the punitive law when it reconvenes in January, and it would be wise to do so for several reasons. First, the mayor and the council must understand that they are penalizing property owners by implementing the tax in the first place. City officials are being reckless, even naive, to think that raising taxes will force a homeowner or a developer into renovating or developing property that they rightfully own. Second, a similar tax failed because it was unenforceable and hurt law-abiding property owners. And, as Mr. Evans also pointed out, property owners will either sue the city, or simply won't pay their taxes.
Trying to implement the law will be a nightmare. There are 15 residential exemptions and 16 exemptions on commercial property, including one that protects the owners of office buildings in which entire floors are vacant. The District bureaucracy will find itself mired in its own red tape trying to enforce the new convoluted law.
The council also should repeal the tax because it is a blatant revenue-generator in the worst way. While we understand that states and the District have to raise more revenues because of the ailing economy, raising property taxes amid a building boom simply isn't smart. In fact, the liberals running the District are so hungry that they can't even agree on how much money the new law will generate. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi's initial scramble to boost the new property tax had him artificially estimating that it would generate $10 million for the financially strapped District. Mr. Evans called his and his colleagues' bluff. That forced Mr. Gandhi toward a more realistic figure, closer to $6 million. Mr. Evans again countered his fellow lawmakers. "We have to stop balancing our budgets on money that isn't real."
And therein lies the chief reason why officials must scrap what obviously is a bad new law. Clearly, they should just stick with trying to enforce the housing and building codes already on the books, instead of punishing property owners who are law-abiding taxpayers.


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