Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Raise in tax cap foreshadows tax hike

New Carrollton wants to pay for more police coverage

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Driven by a goal to extend police protection in the city, New Carrollton’s City Council and administration said a property tax increase is likely following council approval to increase the city’s tax cap from 50 cents to 60 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The council passed a charter amendment during its Jan. 16 meeting to raise the tax cap, meaning raising the limit to which property taxes can be increased. The city’s current tax rate is 45 cents per $100 of assessed value.

City Administrator J. Michael Downes said the cap increase does not mean the tax rate would be increased to as high as 60 cents for fiscal 2009, but said that taxes are still likely to increase some in order to reach the city’s goal of 24-7 police protection.

City Police Chief David Rice said crime is not on the rise but it is always an issue and happens sporadically in the city.

‘‘Even the bad guys can start to learn when we’re here and when we’re not here,” Rice said. ‘‘The county did do a good job but they do have a lot of calls for service. When we’re here, we’re here quick. Or citizens want that three to four minute response time.”

Rice said if the tax cap increases and taxes are raised, the force could move to 24-7 police coverage by July. However, the city would need additional officers and has not settled on how many more it can afford. Rice said the starting salary for a city police officer is $39,900. Currently the force has 12 officers, and a four-hour time frame exists during any part of a day without any coverage because there are not enough officers to cover every shift.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Anderson said because the city is not using the county police as much as it has in the past, residents will receive a tax differential, otherwise known as a reduction in property taxes, by 9.8 cents per $100 of assessed value.

‘‘In theory, if [the] city raised its tax rate 10 cents, and citizens get 9.8 cents, it would almost be a break even calculation,” Downes said. ‘‘However, what you have to throw into that mix is this increase in assessed value for property.”

Anderson said most residents were willing to pay more if it meant the city would have quality police services, but said he realizes there will be some resident opposition. Now paying up to $4,500 a year in property taxes, resident Bob Simmons said he and his wife, Susie, are unable to afford another tax increase and can barely afford to pay taxes now.

Bob Simmons, 70, said his taxes have increased by $2,000 in the past three years because of increases in property value assessments. What he originally purchased for $17,200 in 1961 is now worth more than $300,000. Bob Simmons said Susie, 71, has been doing custodial work at Lanham’s Trinity Assembly of God Church to make ends meet. Bob Simmons retired from truck driving in 1996 and is currently not working.

‘‘She’s on fixed income,” Bob Simmons said. ‘‘She shouldn’t be working. She worked all her life. She put in over 35 years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She’s certainly done her bit.”

Bob Simmons said the city’s police department is doing an excellent job but wishes the council would wait until additional revenue comes in from developments such as the New Carrollton Town Center, the Sheraton Four Points Hotel and proposed Metro View development near the New Carrollton Metro Station before raising taxes.

‘‘When you retire and you’re on a fixed income, you still have to give some kind of break to senior citizens,” he said. ‘‘I know there’s a tax credit for senior citizens, but it’s limited. And unfortunately with Susie still working, that puts us over the limit.”

Anderson said residents can register for state tax credits such as the Homestead Tax Credit, which limits property tax increase to 10 percent or less during one year on one property, or the Homeowner’s Tax Credit, which limits property taxes if they go over a fixed percentage of gross income.

Anderson said the Homeowner’s Tax Credit is only open to those with incomes less than $60,000. Anderson recommended residents apply for these benefits through the state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation before May 1 to receive any reductions from their July tax bill.

Former councilwoman and resident June Garrett said she would prefer if the city did not raise taxes and stay mindful of senior residents on fixed incomes, such as the Simmons, but said she understands raising taxes is necessary to maintain the city’s quality of services.

‘‘This city is pretty much limited in expansion of the city,” Garrett said. ‘‘Our tax base is not like Greenbelt and Bowie and other areas where the businesses can absorb some of the tax hike.”

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