Monday, June 07, 2010

County Council At-Large Candidates on Taxes

After concluding its endorsements, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) posted the questionnaires it had received from candidates on its website. Some of the questions pertain to issues of no great importance to people outside the union. But others are of interest to many. We are digging through the answers provided by the County Council At-Large candidates on a series of questions of considerable value this week and hope this aids our readers.

The candidates who completed the questionnaires are incumbents Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, Democratic challengers Jane de Winter, Fred Evans, Hans Riemer and Becky Wagner and Republican challengers Robert Dyer and Brandon Rippeon. Incumbent Duchy Trachtenberg did not complete a questionnaire because she is not seeking union endorsements (unlike four years ago).

Our first question from MCEA’s questionnaire is: What is your view of the current local tax structure? What, if any, changes would you advocate?

Marc Elrich

I supported Al Carr’s bill to enable us to have a split rate tax system (commercial and residential property with potentially a higher rate on commercial) and will support it again if it’s introduced (only Phil and I supported it the first time.) I supported Rich Madaleno’s bill to give the county the right to create a transit taxing authority so we can raise taxes on property that would benefit from the construction of major transportation projects, such as my BRT proposal. In a perfect world, the State would have a more progressive income tax, and County’s would share in the corporate income tax. I’m especially interested in this because the cost of infrastructure for business expansion is borne at the local level, yet the State is the sole beneficiary of the income taxes.

Several years ago I supported the County Executive’s tax proposal to increase the rate but also the homeowner tax credit. Had we done that we’d have had another $100 million dollars this year and the furloughs and many of the painful service cuts would not have been necessary. The Exec was right in projecting our long-term revenue needs, but I lost the vote on the council 8-1.

Nancy Floreen

At this point, I think we’ve pushed it to the limit.

George Leventhal

I would support a charter amendment to remove the fire tax from the constraints of the Ficker amendment. I hope we can successfully rezone targeted areas of economic opportunity like White Flint, the Great Seneca Science Corridor, Wheaton, Glenmont and the Science Center East at White Oak/FDA. In so doing, we will increase land values and expand our property tax base. We need to get back to relying on property tax revenue rather than regressive nuisance taxes like energy and cell phone taxes. Expanding jobs and investment in these targeted areas of economic opportunity will also increase income tax revenues.

Jane de Winter

As an Economist I believe that the most efficient tax structure is broad based taxes unless we are specifically seeking to encourage or discourage certain types of economic activity. I would support a more progressive structure in the state and piggy back tax than we have now—there is very little progressivity. When residential property tax rates are increased I support using a mix of rate increases and credits to assist low income property owners so that the property tax also has some progressivity. I am in favor of exploring development tax districts to raise funds for development related infrastructure needs. I was not and am not in favor of the Ficker Amendment which requires nine votes to raise property taxes above the charter limit. When considering new revenue options, we need to have a thorough understanding of the impact on economic activity.

Robert Dyer

Property taxes are too high. Once the structural deficit has been addressed, we need to reduce property taxes. I have a plan to create at least 8 new revenue streams of varying amounts so that we can reduce the burden on the taxpayer. These include a voluntary income tax and voluntary gas tax program.

Fred Evans

Due to the national and state budget crises, the "trickle down" effect on local jurisdictions has created an economic disaster. I do not believe that the "local tax structure" is as much of the problem as our ability to predict these situations and be prepared for them. Therefore, I would advocate that a thorough fiscal analysis be completed involving all stakeholder groups to determine next steps and what steps to take in order to avert future economic disasters. Since I am not a fiscal specialist, I would depend on "experts" to give us a realistic framework for the future.

Hans Riemer

I have three concerns when I consider our tax structure:

1) Taxes must only be high enough to generate revenue to pay for the vital services the county provides, and no higher. Surpluses should be saved for rainy days and also returned to the taxpayers. During the boom times of our recent past, however, the County Council raised taxes, and now there are few alternatives for raising revenue.

2) The tax structure should be fundamentally progressive and it should be broad-based rather than singling out particular groups of people for unfair burdens. It cannot place an unrealistic burden on the poor, elderly or otherwise disadvantaged. In the property tax context, the state of Maryland has a Homeowner Tax Relief program designed to protect lower income families and the elderly and disabled from losing their property because the assessments and tax rates on their property has gone up and they can no longer afford them, and Montgomery County has taken steps to expand this program, both in terms of eligibility and the extent of relief. We must ensure that these programs and the income limits governing eligibility (currently $64,000) keep pace with inflation and any changes in the property tax rates.

3) Our tax burden must be competitive relative to other jurisdictions in our region. We do not need to have the lowest taxes, and we have a higher quality of life in Montgomery County because we are willing to pay for it. But we do have to be vigilant to ensure that the tax burden in this county does not grow so high compared to Northern Virginia or DC that we cannot compete for jobs. A 2009 DC government survey estimated the average total tax burden on a family of three making $100,000 a year would be $10,104 in Montgomery County, compared to $7,938 in DC, $8,276 in Alexandria, $8,417 in Arlington County and $8,347 in Fairfax County.

Brandon Rippeon

The current local tax structure is too high. I advocate a freeze on additional taxes.

Becky Wagner

I think it is more than unfortunate that the Ficker Amendment passed in 2008. There are times when new or increased taxes are necessary to fund the services that we value. That said, the piecemeal approach of tax increases begs for a comprehensive review and decision regarding what we want to fund, and how we intend to do so. In reality we have to grow our revenue base in the County by increasing opportunities for the business community to thrive here. Good jobs and thriving businesses pay for our quality of life.