When discussing two bills Monday that would limit annual property assessment increases to 10 percent or less, County Council members wanted to make sure the public understood one thing.
Regardless of how they voted, the bill would not put a corresponding cap on the property tax rate, council members warned.
The property tax rate is based on the assessed value of a property. This year, it is $2.45 per $100 of assessed value. If the assessments keep going up, the county could keep the rate the same yet still receive more money from taxpayers.
Council member Charles C. Feaga, R-5, thought that was "morally wrong," because it allowed local legislators to hide behind increased state assessments while claiming to hold down taxes.
If the assessment were capped at 5 percent annually, Feaga said, the revenues would be less -- $1,265,830 less this fiscal year to be exact -- and the council would have to assume responsibility for raising the tax rate to make up the difference.
Three of his council colleagues agreed with Feaga and voted Monday to cap the assessments at 5 percent annually.
Council chairman C. Vernon Gray cast the lone vote against the bill.
"If you want truth in taxes, then vote a zero increase in property assessments," Gray said. "We don't need to shoot ourselves in the foot with this bill, but that's what we've done."
With the county already facing a shortfall of $17 million to $18 million for this fiscal year and a $25 million loss in revenue for next, this was no time to trim property taxes, Gray said.
Further, with the economy in a decline, property values might decline on their own, Gray said. "We should have allowed ourselves as much flexibility as possible."
Gray said that as a consequence of the council's action, council members have to be "prepared not to add" to the school board's budget if county executive Charles I. Ecker trims it. The council can restore any cuts the executive makes to the school budget.
Council member Paul Farragut, D-4, said he was voting with Feaga and council newcomer Darrel Drown, R-2, to support the 5 percent cap because it would apply mainly to houses in the $150,000 range -- houses that he said were often owned by one-parent families, the elderly or first-time homebuyers.
Shane Pendergrass, D-1, had introduced a bill of her own that would have capped assessment increases at 10 percent annually. The council was required to pass a cap of 10 percent or less by Jan. 1 or lose that prerogative to the state.
Pendergrass said that while she appreciated the people who supported her version of the bill -- the PTA council of Howard County, the Chamber of Commerce, and the League of Women Voters -- she thought people had been "somewhat overassessed" this year. Not to vote for the lower cap in the face of an expected tax rate increase would be a "double whammy," she said.
"In a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, I vote 'yes,' " Pendergrass said.
Earlier, Pendergrass had had difficulty getting partisan cooperation from council chairman Gray.
Gray initially recognized fellow Democrat Pendergrass for "a point of personal privilege," but when she sought to use that privilege to take a straw poll as to which tax rate the more than 200 people in the audience would prefer, he wouldn't allow it.
Pendergrass asked Executive Secretary Hugh J. Forton for a parliamentary ruling, but Gray ordered him to "move on" to other matters.
Even so, the council finished less than half its agenda when it recessed at 1:45 a.m. It was so late, the council had to vote to go into emergency session to pass the assessment cap. The council plans to hear the remainder of its agenda Jan. 2.