GRANOLAPARK: Tax hike trips and falls

The Community Center atrium will be covered to expand the city police station on the bottom floor. Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

City taxes will go down, not up as the city manager proposed last month.

The Takoma Park city council pulled the tax rate down from the proposed 56 cents to 53.48 cents at the their May 3 budget reconciliation session.

In theory, homeowners’ tax payments will be less than last year’s because the new proposed amount is lower than the constant yield tax rate.

What they heck, you may be wondering, does that mean in English and on your tax bill? Homeowners are taxed on the value of their property – roughly the price they would get for it if they sold it right now. Home values steadily rise in the Washington, DC recession-proof real estate market. This makes property-tax harvesters – the county and the city – happy, happy, happy. That’s because if the tax rate stays the same they get more and more money every year.

The tax rate is set per $100 of assessed value. So a house valued at $500,000 would pay city tax of $2674. That’s on top of the county property tax which will be $1 per $100 of assessed value in 2018. That’s slightly lower than last year’s big tax increase – BUT, don’t be fooled. If the rate goes lower or stays the same, the house value goes up. So even though “lower rate” sounds good, it could amount to a tax increase.

And that brings us to the “constant yield tax rate.” In other words: “the tax rate that means you pay the same amount of dollars as last year.”

So, apparently, if the council doesn’t change it’s collective mind, homeowners will pay slightly fewer tax dollars next year.

The tax rate reduction was made possible by a lower-than-expected health insurance payment and a police rebate. It may also have been spurred by the stronger than usual citizen turnout against rising taxes. More people than usual, and not the usual cranks, showed up at public hearings this spring. As one told the council a couple of weeks ago, “this is not sustainable,” pointing out that the city’s tax rate has been steadily climbing at a faster rate than the cost of living.

The city manager who writes the budget, and the council which vets it and votes on it, have for decades counted on an idealistic populace happy to pay high taxes for amenities and progressive programs. No candidates in living memory have won a city council election with an anti-tax campaign.

At the May 3 meeting the council kept the sharply increased, and controversial, storm-water fee at the rate at $92 – up from $55 – in the budget. They kept the multi-million dollar library renovations, the atrium renovations and the $100K for police that was on the list of things that might be cut.

The community center atrium is open from the police station entrance in the basement to the third floor. The police station covets the atrium space for a much needed expansion. The city has a plan to close in the ceiling. The Commuity Center’s first floor would also gain floor-space.

The council, finding humor where it could in an over four-hour meeting, joked about turning the atrium into a swimming pool.

Synchronized snaps

It has been a difficult budget season with Monday meetings added to the council’s weekly schedule, and worries over the possible effects of federal funds being withheld because of Takoma Park’s sanctuary status.

Overworked councilmember tempers snapped at the April 26 council meeting. Mayor Kate Stewart interrupted councilmember Fred Schultz in mid sentence, asking him if his point was germane to the issue under discussion. Schultz responded angrily that her question was “unhelpful.”

Schultz tends to lay out issues in detail and in step-by-step order to explain how he arrives at a decision or question. Off-the-cuff comments and a few similar interruptions indicate he has come under mayoral criticism for this practice.

Schultz was discussing the proposed election day change that would synchronize it with general elections rather than having it on off-years. Synchronization would require a city charter change and significant alterations to the city’s voting system, notably holding the election in four voting stations instead of one. The goal is to increase voter participation.

Schultz, one of the minority against changing the election date, later apologized for his flash of anger. Stewart, who supports the change, did not refer to the incident.

Really?

You’d think that the council and staff would have learned from the 2012 council meeting dispute over a councilmember’s after-vote request to change a vote. When a similar request was made April 26, NOBODY in the room, including the city attorney, had a copy of Robert’s Rules, the rulebook by which city council meetings are run.

The stakes were not as high this time and they managed to hump over the procedural obstacle. So it did not become a three-week soap opera as it did in 2012.

A couple of amendments to the proposed bill failed and the council voted as expected – three to four – in favor of changing the election date and the city charter.

Takoma Junction backslide

The Takoma Park/Silver Spring Food Co-op announced via a May 4 e-mail to their customers that they were walking away from a Takoma Junction development deal with developer Neighborhood Development Company. The reason cited is high rent.

The announcement includes a letter sent by Marilyn Berger, Co-op Expansion Project Manager to the city council. In the letter to the city Berger says that in early April NDC offered a base rental rate of $45 per square foot. In May, 2016, she says, NDC had offered $28.50 per square foot. “An increase in rent of this magnitude made our expansion into the Redevelopment Project economically unfeasible,” says Berger.

The Co-op has a history of using their large customer base to pressure the council to weigh in on the Co-op’s side in negotiations with the developer.

Each time the Co-op flexed that muscle throughout the process, however, the city council lost more patience. Finally, at the end of a long, delayed negotiation around the turn of the year, the Co-op got a tongue-lashing from the council for the practice.

– Gilbert

 

Twitter feed:
Follow @Granolapark

Like us on Facebook:
Granolapark

The Voice

About the Author

Bill Brown

Bill Brown moved to Takoma Park in 1982. He has been involved in journalism in one way or another since he co-published an underground high-school newspaper in the late 1960s.