42 Anne Arundel neighborhoods are granted their unusual wish: higher taxes


In the age of tax cuts, tax revolts and tax caps, some Marylanders actually want to pay more.

When the bills go out this month, nearly 18,000 Anne Arundel County households -- 11 percent of the total -- will pay an additional $2 million in real estate taxes to maintain their neighborhoods' roads, recreation centers and piers.

That's an average of $111 more for each of those families -- money residents voluntarily hand over.

These residents live in the 42 active "special community benefit districts" established in the county over the last 66 years. Anne Arundel has the largest number of special taxing districts in the state.

Even though county residents voted overwhelmingly in 1992 to limit their government's ability to raise property taxes, they have increasingly imposed new taxes on themselves. Leaders of these tax districts say residents are willing to pay more for programs of their choosing, whereas their county taxes support a wider array of services, not all of which benefit them directly.

In the last six years, the number of tax communities in the county has risen 30 percent -- or 14 more benefit districts, said Carolyn P. Kirby, a county budget analyst who oversees the districts.

Willis Sibley's neighbors on the West River decided two years ago that they should form a benefit district -- and pay, on average, an additional $115 per household -- for the upkeep of the community's pier and 4 acres of shoreline.

"These days with anti-tax moods, it's bizarre that people want something for nothing," said Mr. Sibley, secretary of the Cedarhurst Citizens Association Inc. "The county is not going to mow our lawns or fix the roof of our community center."

Experts say the popularity of the taxing practice -- which can add as much as $1,420 to a tax bill -- may mean that residents yearn for a town form of government.

"There really is no local government in Anne Arundel County," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "Each County Council member represents about 65,000 people. It's really not realistic to call that local government."

Most of the benefit districts are waterfront communities that once were summer getaways with private roads and piers. The best way to maintain the community property -- now as then -- was to collect money from neighbors.

In recent years, some communities have become benefit districts as a way to force all homeowners to pay dues.

Seven years ago, the Sherwood Forest community in Annapolis needed hundreds of thousands of dollars from its 330 property owners to maintain its community center, swimming pier and nine-hole golf course. The 85-year-old community's dues had been voluntary, and many residents just didn't pay.

"Most of this is an old community," said Randy Koran, treasurer of the Sherwood Forest Club. "They hotly debated $1 increases."

As a result, the homeowners' association coffers dipped, and the community center grew so dilapidated it had to be closed.

Finally community leaders decided to make Sherwood Forest a benefit district. This year, residents will pay an additional $1,420 in property taxes -- the highest in the county.

"It hasn't deterred house sales," Mr. Koran said. "People knew they had a good deal because they hadn't paid for years."

But not all communities found the benefit district was for them.

Two years ago, the Chesterfield Homeowners Association discussed becoming a taxing district because board members wanted an easy way to collect dues from the Pasadena community's more than 1,800 homes, townhouses and condominiums.

But the board found that the community probably couldn't spend as much money on recreation as it would like and that community governance would become more bureaucratic, said Larry Geidel, vice president of the Chesterfield Homeowners Association.

While the number of benefits districts has exploded, that may change as county officials begin to question whether districts must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires access for the disabled.

Some neighborhoods may not be able to afford compliance with the law, said county officials.

At least for now, residents who want more taxes are getting them. Even the county's loudest tax critic -- who lives in a benefit district -- isn't complaining.

"If people want to tax themselves -- I don't have a problem with that," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association and a resident of Manhattan Beach, which became a benefit district in 1992. "My problem is with the larger fund general purpose tax."

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