Counties bracing for property tax crunch -- Gazette.Net


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As state lawmakers continue to try to reach a budget compromise, some county lawmakers are planning for several more years of decreased revenues.

Local property tax collections are the single-largest source of revenue for county governments, and the lagging housing market coupled with Maryland’s triennial assessment program could mean continued cuts to services for years in some jurisdictions.

According to new estimates released by the Department of Assessments and Taxation on Saturday, the total taxable county assessable base will decrease statewide in the 2012 tax year by $27.9 billion and again in the 2013 tax year by $4 billion, reflecting continuing drops in property values.

“The full effect of the recession is starting to hit the county budgets now, even when other indicators are starting to stabilize a little bit,” said Neil Bergsman, director of the nonprofit Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.

The decline is far-reaching.

According to the most recent annual report from the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation, dated January 2011, 95 percent of the 739,764 assessments from 2010 decreased in value since their last assessment in 2007. Residential home values decreased by 22 percent, according to the department. The 2012 annual report will be released in the next few weeks, said Owen Charles, deputy director of the Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Across the country, cities and counties are starting to see an increase in income and sales taxes, but property taxes only recently started to fall.

In Montgomery County, officials are considering a 4.6 cent increase to the property tax just to bring in the same amount of money they budgeted for fiscal 2012. Joe Beach, assistant chief administrative officer, said the county does not think it will collect the budgeted property tax revenue this year.

“We are projecting a slow rebuilding,” he said.

In Baltimore city, leaders are anticipating reduced property tax revenue beyond fiscal 2015 as a result of a nearly 50 percent drop in home sales prices and the triennial assessment cycle.

Some Maryland counties are expected to recover sooner than others, Charles said.

Howard County, for example, has a Homestead Tax Credit of 4 percent, which kept property tax revenues from spiking during the real estate boom and smoothes out the difference now that property values have decreased.

Howard County is anticipating slow growth in property tax revenues — 1 percent or so — this year, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county’s budget director.

He noted the decrease for other counties could last “a good, long number of years,” and state budget decisions such as shifting the cost of teacher pensions could create an additional burden.

Jon Shure, director of state fiscal strategies at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said counties across the country are facing that double crunch on their budgets.

“The federal government can pass cuts on to the states, the states can pass cuts on to cities and counties, but the cities and counties have no one to pass it on to,” Shure said. “This gives them a choice: Raise taxes, which is not popular, or cut services.”

The Maryland counties least likely to rebound on property tax revenues are those hit hardest by foreclosures, which drag down overall home values.

Median home sales prices in the state started to fall in 2008 and have not recovered, according to housing statistics from the Maryland Association of Realtors.

In Prince George’s County, which has the highest foreclosure rate in the state, county officials are planning for a $25.7 million decrease in property tax revenue in fiscal 2013.

Assessments in the county have fallen by double digits in the past three years, said Terri Charles, acting budget director.

“Unlike some folks who think they’ve seen the worst of it and are expecting small increases, we’re not in that group,” Charles said. “Our recovery is not right around the corner.”

The county’s housing department is working with homeowners whose mortgages are underwater, meaning they owe more than the house is worth, on foreclosure counseling to buoy the housing market. Also, officials have proposed $4.7 million in economic development grants in an effort to expand the county’s commercial tax base. It’s all in an effort to boost the local economy now and lessen the county’s dependence on residential property taxes in future years, Charles said.

“I don’t want to say that we’re bucking the trend, but where others are recovering, we’re not, so we stand out,” she said.

dgaines@gazette.net