Category Archives: Property Taxes

Council Rejects Hidden Tax Hike

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday afternoon, the county council rejected the hidden tax hike that was buried in the county executive’s recommended budget.

The primary issue that bothered the council was the lack of transparency surrounding the tax hike. It was not mentioned in the executive’s budget but it would have raised $5.1 million next year and more money cumulatively in later years. Tax increase proposals attract major attention at budget time with much discussion and public testimony. But this one, which was not published but still included in revenue numbers, flew under the radar until near the end of the FY21 budget process.

Multiple council members complained about process issues. Council Member Hans Riemer noted the failure of the budget to mention the tax hike and said, “This is about our values and our approach to government… The reason why I am so concerned about this proposal is because I really think it flies in the face of our approach to good government and to transparency.” Council Member Andrew Friedson said, “Public policy means public input. And we cannot have transparent and accountable policy making unless there are transparent and accountable decisions for how we make those decisions, how we calculate the policies that we make.”

Council Member Evan Glass put on his CNN journalist hat to investigate what happened. Glass asked council staff how the issue surfaced. Staff replied, “I did not read anything published that this was included,” and said the issue was uncovered through discussions with executive staff. Glass then asked budget director Rich Madaleno why the administration proceeded with it. Madaleno defended the executive’s proposal as an appropriate calculation of the charter limit and said the executive would have discussed this upon release of the budget but that event was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. Madaleno also said this:

Council Member Riemer is correct that in the final iteration of the budget book the piece that explained this was taken out for revision and did not make it back in before it went to the printer. For that I am profoundly sorry but other than that there would have been deep conversation and of course many of you have heard the county executive say over and over that he thinks the charter interpretation is wrong and has been talking about that for months.

Glass acknowledged that he had heard Elrich express various opinions at forums. (Remember those back in the good old days?) But he replied, “To say something in a forum but then not convey it to the council or not to, as you noted, not to even include the cover page in the budget for whatever reason is a problem.”

Even Council Member Gabe “Mr. Rogers” Albornoz had nothing nice to say about the process for considering the tax hike. When Mr. Rogers is unhappy, there is a problem.

Riemer proceeded to claim that the executive’s proposal was actually illegal because it allegedly violated the charter. The charter’s exact language on the property tax charter limit says:

Unless approved by an affirmative vote of all current Councilmembers, the Council shall not levy an ad valorem tax on real property to finance the budgets that will produce total revenue that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year plus a percentage of the previous year’s real property tax revenues that equals any increase in the Consumer Price Index as computed under this section. This limit does not apply to revenue from: (1) newly constructed property, (2) newly rezoned property, (3) property that, because of a change in state law, is assessed differently than it was assessed in the previous tax year, (4) property that has undergone a change in use, and (5) any development district tax used to fund capital improvement projects.

So the charter applies the rate of inflation to adjust “the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year” to calculate the charter limit. The methodology used by the finance department for the last 30 years uses actual taxes paid on real property, including partial-year taxes on newly constructed property which was in use for only part of the year, to calculate current year total revenues. The executive’s new methodology would use taxes that new construction would have paid if billed on an annual basis to calculate current year revenue even though full-year taxes on those properties were not actually collected.

Riemer alleged that the use of hypothetical revenues rather than actual revenues to calculate the charter limit violates the plain language of the charter and asked a council attorney for his opinion. After explaining the technical issues and the possible steps for analysis by the courts, the council attorney replied, “My opinion is that the courts if asked – the court of appeals if asked – would ultimately rule for all the reasons I explained that this provision means actual revenue received during the relevant year for newly constructed property and not the potential revenue you could have received had everything been online for a full year.”

Riemer was bothered by both the transparency issue and the legal risks of the executive’s proposal and he linked the two.

The fundamental issue here is, given how risky it is, the fact that the county council and even more importantly, the public was not informed of this proposal is highly problematic. If you look at the county executive’s budget, you will not find an explanation of this decision. It’s not there. The county executive did not present a budget explaining this method of calculation. The fact is it is a $5 million increase in property taxes from all payers of property taxes in the county. But there is no explanation of that in the county’s budget. It is unthinkable to me that we would have a tax increase that has not actually been transparently presented to the community and, what more, is actually illegal. It is a violation of the charter. The combination of those two aspects of this proposal are just profoundly troubling.

Let’s remember that the principal charter limit activist in the county – Robin Ficker – is an attorney who has sued the county before and prevailed multiple times. A legal challenge to a change in charter limit administration is far from a hypothetical thing.

It’s not clear that a majority of the council agrees with Riemer on opposing the merits of the executive’s proposal. But there was obvious discomfort in dealing with this issue both late and without public input. That goes on top of other tensions with the executive branch on the budget and issues ranging beyond that. Add in stir craziness during the lockdown and these are strange times in Rockville.

After 40 minutes of discussion, the council killed the executive’s hidden tax hike on a 9-0 vote.

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Elrich’s Hidden Tax Hike

By Adam Pagnucco.

One month ago, I roasted the Montgomery County Republican Party for inaccurately claiming that the county was trying to “sneak in” a tax hike. At that time, the issue was a state notice requirement and not actual intent – at least not by the county council – to raise taxes. But it turns out that there actually was a hidden tax hike embedded in the budget on top of the executive’s open recommendation to raise property taxes. No one reading the budget would have found it. But county council staff did find it and now the matter is exposed.

Folks, I have been reading county budgets for almost 15 years and I don’t remember seeing anything like this.

The issue at hand is how the county calculates the charter limit on property taxes. In concept, it’s a simple procedure. The county’s finance department uses two data points: the estimated amount of real property tax revenues collected in the current fiscal year and the percentage growth of the consumer price index from the previous calendar year. Tack on inflation to the current fiscal year’s property tax revenue and that’s the charter limit for the next fiscal year. (The county can collect additional property tax revenues on a few other categories of property outside the charter limit.)

Sounds easy, yeah? But what about taxes collected from properties newly built during the current fiscal year? For the last 30 years, the county’s finance department has included the actual taxes paid on those properties in its calculation of current year revenues. So if a property was built halfway through the fiscal year, half of its annual tax bill is included in current year revenues. If a property was built nine months into the fiscal year, then one-quarter of its annual tax bill is counted. And so on. Add in these pro-rated tax bills to full-year tax bills for existing properties and that’s the current year property tax collections. Tack on inflation and that’s the charter limit.

The Elrich administration used a new methodology to calculate the charter limit in its FY21 recommended budget. Instead of using the actual tax bills paid by newly built properties in the current fiscal year, it included full-year tax bills in its estimate of current revenues even though those bills were not actually paid for the full year. That allowed the administration to calculate slightly higher current year property tax revenues. Tack on inflation and the charter limit is slightly higher. And so there is more room to raise the property tax rate than there would be otherwise.

In other words, it’s a tax hike.

It’s not a very large tax hike. Council staff estimates that the new methodology allows the county to raise an extra $5.1 million in the FY21 budget, or 0.24 cents per $100 of assessed value. (By contrast, the executive’s openly recommended tax hike was 3.18 cents.) But if this new methodology is adopted, it will compound over time and eventually raise tens of millions of dollars more than under the old methodology.

Basing tax estimates on taxes not actually received is a questionable practice at best, but let’s set aside the merits of the policy for now. The disturbing thing about this is that it was not disclosed to the public through the budget. Search the county’s 831 page budget for “charter limit” and you won’t find any discussion of this methodology change. Instead, the matter first surfaced in a council staff memo released late last week. The council held a closed session to discuss the legal ramifications of the change on Wednesday. The council will now decide the matter today.

Regardless of how one feels about taxes, let’s agree that decisions concerning them are important and warrant public scrutiny and participation. The issue was not publicly known when testimony was heard on the budget, so residents were denied the opportunity to weigh in. That is a direct result of the administration’s failure to disclose the issue in its published budget.

We deserve better.

Let’s see what the council makes of this.

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County Screw-Up Led to Tax Hike Proposal

By Adam Pagnucco.

Buried in the fine print of County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended FY21 operating budget is a shocking revelation: the executive claims that a mistake made by county revenue estimators two years ago has caused tens of millions of dollars in losses for the county.  One reason why the Elrich administration is proposing a tax hike now is to recover that money.

To understand what happened, we have to understand how the county’s charter limit on property taxes functions.  Here is the exact text of the charter limit.

Unless approved by an affirmative vote of all current Councilmembers, the Council shall not levy an ad valorem tax on real property to finance the budgets that will produce total revenue that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year plus a percentage of the previous year’s real property tax revenues that equals any increase in the Consumer Price Index as computed under this section. This limit does not apply to revenue from: (1) newly constructed property, (2) newly rezoned property, (3) property that, because of a change in state law, is assessed differently than it was assessed in the previous tax year, (4) property that has undergone a change in use, and (5) any development district tax used to fund capital improvement projects.

In plain English, what this means is that the county’s real property tax receipts (with a few exceptions) may not rise at an annual rate exceeding inflation unless the entire council votes to exceed it.

Calculating the charter limit involves three basic steps.  First, one must estimate the value of the assessable base subject to the charter limit.  Second, one must calculate the value of the many property tax credits offered by the county.  Third, one must calculate the levels of real property tax rates that, when applied to the assessable base and taking account of the credits, produce an increase in receipts equal to the rate of inflation.

Hence, estimating the size of the assessable base is critical.  If it is underestimated, property tax rates will be set too high and the charter limit will be violated.  If it is overestimated, property tax rates will be set too low and the county will not collect as much revenue as it could at the charter limit.  These are extremely technical considerations but this affects tens of millions of dollars (at least) for the county budget.

In his recommended budget, the county executive makes this statement:

I am proposing this supplemental tax rate this year to partially offset an unexpected underperformance of the property tax for the last two years. In preparing the FY19 County budget, the taxable property base of the County was overvalued. As a result, the property tax rate needed to generate revenues at the Charter limit for the past two years was set too low. This resulted in lost revenues of $80 million, now permanently embedded in our revenue projections.

The amount of revenue lost by this mistake was $35 million in FY19 and $45 million in FY20.  Because of compounding, the lost revenue will rise each year unless it is recovered.

It’s important to note that Elrich was not yet the county executive when the FY19 charter limit was estimated.  That was done by the finance department in former County Executive Ike Leggett’s last year.

Must the losses be stanched?  The county usually allows property tax receipts to rise up to the charter limit each year, but there is nothing in county law requiring that.  For example, in FY13, Leggett recommended level-funding of property tax receipts, which actually kept them below the charter limit.  The amount of forgone revenue was estimated at $26 million that year, which would have risen in subsequent years.  However, this was not the result of an estimation mistake.  The county had doubled the energy tax two years before and had not sunset it as was promised.  Forgoing a bit of property taxes was something of a consolation.

This issue must be frustrating for all concerned.  County leaders have a choice.  They can live with the mistake and move on.  Or they can tell voters, “We screwed up and now we need to raise your taxes.”

If option number two is selected, how do you think folks will respond to that?

Dear reader, if you are someone who is considering running for office someday, remember this story.  Something terrible could happen to you when you run.

You could win!

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Elrich Then and Elrich Now

By Adam Pagnucco.

The big news coming out of County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended Fiscal Year 2021 budget is that he is proposing a tax hike.  As you might imagine, I will have something to say about the specifics of that tax proposal in future days.  But first, it’s worth remembering what Elrich said about taxes when he was running for executive two years ago.  Over and over, he made statements ranging from saying that he did not want to raise taxes all the way to flatly refusing to raise them.  Consider the following:

1.  In July 2018, Elrich told WAMU that he “doesn’t want to raise taxes, but would like to see developers pay a greater share of infrastructure costs in the county.”

2.  In a candidate forum in October 2018, Elrich said, “I’m not raising taxes and I’m not raising fees.”  Check out Elrich’s remarks at 1:25 of this video.

3.  In May 2018, Bethesda Beat reporter Lou Peck asked Elrich this question:

As county executive, could you foresee yourself proposing a property tax increase above the charter limit of the rate of inflation, requiring another unanimous council vote?

Elrich replied:

I would seriously hope not. I feel that before you go talk about a tax increase, I would have to demonstrate to people that I’ve done everything I can do to lean out the county, to make sure we’re as efficient as possible, that I’ve taken people and been able to repurpose them, rather than just going to taxes first. I think the days of going to taxes first are over.

4.  In November 2018, Elrich said the following to Source of the Spring:

“A lot of people ask me about taxes,” Elrich said. “One of the issues in the campaign, people said, ‘Oh, Marc is going to bring in all these massive numbers of social programs and raise taxes on everybody.’ And actually that’s not what we’re doing. We know that the budget is going to be constrained.

“We’re pretty committed to staying inside the box and trying to run the government more efficiently,” he continued. “I’ve been telling people I’ve got $5.5 billion or more in revenue, and if I’m going to look for doing new things and being creative, I’m going to look at the revenue I have [and] figure out how to use it better. I think we can do a better job.”

5.  Immediately after he was elected, WAMU asked Elrich about taxes.

Despite being Maryland’s largest county with more than a million people, Montgomery County tax revenues aren’t growing fast enough to keep up with rising costs, Elrich said.

But, he said, a tax increase is out of the question.

“If you don’t handle the money you have better, you’re gonna have a hard time doing what you’re doing today, let alone doing things that you need to [in the future],” Elrich said. “But I think it’s actually a good thing to have this decision that there’s not going to be additional taxes because it means you actually have to think about what you’re doing.”

As a candidate, Elrich proposed an alternative to tax hikes: restructuring the government to increase efficiency and save money.  In a November 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post, Elrich wrote:

Far from saddling taxpayers with higher bills, I will streamline county government. Unions and their members, our county’s workforce, know and trust me. That is why we announced our plan to restructure county government together. Our county is facing difficult financial times; without thoughtful changes, employees will face across-the-board cuts.

Elrich elaborated on his restructuring plans in his 2018 questionnaire response to the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce.

I have explained how I would begin to rethink government in my First 90 Days Financial To-Do List, which you can find on my website. In this list, I lay out how I would initiate a long-term financial plan, increase the net profit contribution from the Department of Liquor Control, begin a structural review of county departments in partnership with the county workforce, implement a labor-management partnership called gainsharing (in which both parties agree on targets for improving performance and reducing cost and everyone receives a share of the savings generated), leverage a business process improvement system called Lean, assess the appropriateness of county reserve levels, improve data practices, review non-competitive county contracts, establish an innovation fund, increase government accountability, and develop budgets that prioritize spending and ensure that the county meets financial commitments in a sustainable way.

After Elrich’s election, the Sentinel interviewed him and reported, “Elrich said he plans to restructure the County government to make it run more efficiently, saying that doing so will help pay for the new programs he proposes without needing to raise taxes.”

So according to candidate Elrich, there would be no need for tax hikes because he would work with the unions to restructure government and save money.  What is his actual governing record through his first two budgets?

1.  Elrich’s recommended FY20 operating budget contained an increase of 82 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in county government.  This does not include position increases in other agencies like MCPS, the college or park and planning.  The personnel cost increase recommended for county government was $37 million.  For the three county government unions, Elrich negotiated contracts containing raises of up to 9.4% for some employees.

2.  Elrich’s recommended FY21 operating budget contains an increase of 189 FTEs in county government with a personnel cost increase of $21 million.  Again, this omits increases in MCPS, the college and park and planning.  Elrich’s negotiated contracts with the three county government unions contain raises of up to 8% for some employees plus lump sum bonuses of $1,000 and longevity increases for some employee categories.

3.  The county council trimmed Elrich’s contract with MCGEO last year but his contracts and increases for managers and non-union employees this year will cost a combined $27.4 million in FY21 and $37.7 million each year thereafter.

And so, if there has been any restructuring at all, it has not saved any money or created any obvious new efficiencies.  Instead of streamlining government – as he said he would do – Elrich just wants a tax hike.

Would anyone like to rerun the 2018 county executive election right about now?

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Is This the Worst Communications Debacle in County History?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As MoCo residents are just now starting to find out, County Executive Marc Elrich has recommended a property tax hike as part of his Fiscal Year 2021 budget.  And how did they find this out?  The first mention of it came from a county council statement released at 1:05 PM today opposing the tax hike.  As of this writing, the public knows little about the budget other than the fact that it contains a tax increase.

With the coronavirus spreading and the local economy on its knees, how do you think folks are going to feel about that?

Let’s set aside for the moment any analysis of the merits of the tax hike.  (That will come.)  Instead, let’s consider how a competent administration would try to roll this out.  In the past, administrations held press events with the council on the mornings of their recommended budget releases.  Right after those events, press releases went out containing loooooooong lists of all the goodies in the budgets.  More money for schools?  Check.  More social workers?  Check.  Increased numbers of police officers?  Check.  Big Macs for every girl and boy (or quinoa for the healthy eaters)?  Check.  Doug Duncan, Ike Leggett – it didn’t matter who it was, they all put on a Santa cap and handed out cookies from the chimney, at least when there wasn’t a recession.

But this budget contains a tax hike.  No problem, plenty of budgets in the past contained tax hikes.  You sell those tax hikes based on what they buy and other factors making them necessary.  Leggett, for example, sold his FY11 doubling of the energy tax hike as being the only way that he could preserve the bond rating.  In FY17, the county council sold its 8.7% property tax increase as an “Education First” budget.  It didn’t matter so much whether they were right.  The point is that they had an argument to make.

And now to today.  The administration was always going to face hurdles in selling a tax hike.  After all, the council just two weeks ago said that they didn’t want more taxing authority from the state because they weren’t interested in raising taxes.  So what do you do?  First, you line up advocates who benefit from the tax hike and forge them into an army.  That shouldn’t be so hard since the teachers, the service employees, MCGEO, the non-profits, the enviros and lots of other stakeholders are getting a piece of the new money either directly or indirectly.  Invite them to your presser.  If the coronavirus prevents that, get them in writing.  Have them make videos.  Include supportive quotes from them in your own communications.  Have them all up team up on an online petition.  (MCGEO already has one that they promoted through a mailer.)  Have them send out supportive blast emails and social media posts the very morning on which the budget is released.  And so on.  The point here is that this isn’t just the executive’s budget.  It belongs to all of these other groups too.  This makes the council members understand that they would pay a price by voting no.

The budget isn’t drafted overnight; it takes weeks to prepare.  That means the executive branch had time to get ready.  They should have lined everything up and beat the council (and everyone else) to the punch.  Yeah, the critics are going to cry about it, but let them go last so YOU can define this budget first.  Instead, the administration did… apparently nothing.  There was no morning press event, even a livestreamed one, and there were no preemptive communications – at least none that I saw.  The very first communication released from the county came from eight council members who opposed the tax increase.  As of this writing, other than a brief statement from Elrich defending the tax hike, there is STILL no comprehensive communication from the county listing all the benefits of the budget.  Is anyone other than Elrich out there defending it?

What a disaster!

So who should be upset about this?  It shouldn’t be the tax opponents.  The administration’s incompetence allowed them to define the budget around the tax increase.  Robin Ficker has to be bellowing in joy right now.

The folks who should be really upset are the ones who might benefit from the tax hike.  A proper communications effort should have been designed to get the council to hold off on expressing opinions about the increase, thereby buying time for the advocates to lobby them and start shifting some votes around.  Instead, eight council members said no immediately in the most public way possible.  (Council Member Nancy Navarro, who has chaired the council’s tax-writing committee for ten years, followed up with a hell no.)  It would be very hard for the council to move off that now.  As for the advocates, instead of waging a common battle for a bigger pie, they might have to fight each other for scraps as the council figures out how to reduce the executive’s increase in county expenditures.

And so, because of an epic communications debacle, a tough sell has become damn near impossible.

Congrats to the administration.  Or something.

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Elrich Defends His Tax Hike

By Adam Pagnucco.

Forty-five minutes after eight members of the county council released a statement opposing the property tax hike contained in County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended budget, the executive has released a statement defending it. We reprint it below.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s Statement on Release of his Recommended Fiscal Year 2021 Operating Budget

As required by the County Charter, I submitted my annual budget to the County Council earlier today. My staff and I have been working on this budget for more than six months. During that time, we received budget requests from the community, the school system, our departments and Councilmembers that help to shape this budget proposal. The three-cent increase is a special tax that is specifically designed for education and would help to fund the budget request from Montgomery County Public Schools.

At the time that we were developing this budget, COVID-19 was not on the horizon and now, during these unique and difficult times, we have to factor in its impact. I stand by the need for us to increase our investment in education, but I understand the unique situation that we are currently in. We have all known from the beginning that funding the school system’s request could not be funded within anticipated revenues and, as we have been working at the State level to increase school funding through the Build Act and Kirwan, I believe that we should make the additional investment in schools that they need today, even if it required a special tax increase dedicated to the schools.

I combined this proposed three-cent special schools tax increase with a $108 increase in the County’s property tax credit so that a homeowner with a $500,000 home would see about a $42 annual tax increase—the three cents would raise the taxes by $150, but combined with the County property tax, the net increase is $42. A one million dollar home would have a net $192 per year increase. 

As in every budget cycle, I have informed the Council that I will work with it to find ways to deal with the budget.

Dealing with today’s emergency situation and having a long overdue community conversation about the future we want to build for our County will be a challenge in coming weeks.  The challenges we face in areas such as education, economic development and transportation will still be there long after this crisis is over and we can’t take our eyes off the future no matter how hard those decisions will be. I know that in today’s context it is hard to determine what the future looks like, but we will balance addressing our present situation with planning for the future of this County. And we will do it together.

To learn more about the recommended operating budget, go to https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/operatingbudget

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Elrich Recommends Tax Hike, Council Says No

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed a 3.18 cent property tax hike in his recommended Fiscal Year 2021 operating budget, which was released today. The budget does not state the exact size of the tax hike, but because state data indicates that the county collects almost $20 million per penny in real property taxes, the tax hike is probably in the vicinity of $60 million.

Soon after receiving Elrich’s budget, the entire county council except for Council Member Tom Hucker released a statement opposing the tax hike. Their statement is reprinted below.

Statement by Montgomery County Council President Katz and Councilmembers Albornoz, Friedson, Glass, Jawando, Navarro, Rice and Riemer on the County Executive’s Fiscal Year 2021 $5.9 Billion Operating Budget Recommendation

ROCKVILLE, Md., March 16, 2020—Montgomery County Council President Sidney Katz and Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, Will Jawando, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer, made the following statement on County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed 3.18 cent property tax increase in the fiscal year 2021 Recommended Operating Budget:

“Our focus in the midst of an unprecedented health emergency must be on bringing together businesses and residents, nonprofits and government to address the immediate crisis we face. We also must provide as much certainty and support as we can for county residents who understandably fear what the economic realities of this global pandemic will have on their jobs, retirement savings, small businesses and families.

This is a time for cautious decision-making, not property tax increases. We look forward to working with the County Executive to address the initiatives in his budget recommendations.”

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Non-Incumbents Embrace Moon Country Club Bill

By Adam Pagnucco.

Delegate David Moon’s local bill on country clubs, which would have phased out a $10 million special tax break received only by country clubs with golf courses, did not get much love from elected officials.  The County Council did not support it (despite recently passing $53 million in budget cuts), the County Executive outright opposed it and Moon’s colleagues in the MoCo House Delegation killed it on a 17-7 vote.  This story is not quite over though because Moon has a statewide bill that would not eliminate the tax break but would limit country clubs’ assessed land value to one percent of market value.

Elected officials may not have embraced Moon’s bill but there is another group of people who absolutely loved it: non-incumbent candidates for office.  In the wake of the bill’s death, MANY candidates made clear they would support it if elected.  Here’s a sample.

Bill Conway (Council At-Large) tweeted in support of the bill.

Danielle Meitiv (Council At-Large) wrote in support of the bill on Facebook and criticized those who voted against it.

Andy Hoverman (House D-39) took out a Facebook ad supporting the bill.  Among the District 39 Delegates, Shane Robinson voted for the bill while Kirill Reznik and Charles Barkley (who is running for Council At-Large) voted against it.

Three non-incumbent candidates for Delegate in District 18 spoke out in favor of the bill on Seventh State’s Facebook page.

Emily Shetty said, “We have a budget deficit and are struggling to fully fund schools and other high priority services. I support David’s bill, and appreciate and would have supported the amendments he made to further tailor it as well. I don’t think it’s fair for private clubs to benefit from tax breaks otherwise unavailable to families and other employers in the state.”

Mila Johns said, “I 100% support David Moon’s bill. I have previously stated that on this page and I’m extremely grateful to Jeff Waldstreicher and Ana Sol Gutierrez for their principled vote. I read Al Carr’s reasoning and while I understand how he came to his decision, I disagree with it. It’s simply hard to believe so many in our county discarded a very reasonable way to raise revenue in a time of such painful budget shortfalls.”

Leslie Milano said, “Here’s where I stand: We cannot continue to subsidize a luxury restricted to the wealthy when taxpayers do not have access to the very thing they are subsidizing. The fact that only the very wealthy can access this subsidized luxury is extremely distasteful, especially when there is a great deal of poverty in our county as well as a budget shortfall of $120M affecting a variety of areas for every taxpayer. I would sponsor or co-sponsor a revised bill come January to ensure that clubs are paying their fair share. I agree with Ike Leggett that MoCo clubs shouldn’t be taxed differently than clubs in other counties, but I think we need to course correct MoCo clubs first with a local bill – as a sign of good faith – and in a second bill address remaining clubs in the state, which is David’s proposal. It will be easier to pass in two stages and moves us in the right direction.”

Among the District 18 Delegates, Al Carr voted against the bill while Ana Sol Gutierrez (who is running for Council District 1) and Jeff Waldstreicher (who is running for Senate) voted for it.

Several other candidates sent us statements in support of the bill.  They include:

Brandy Brooks (Council At-Large)

Our budget and tax policies should be built around the mutual concept of the common and each contributing their fair share. The common good should guide us in our decisions as well as our interactions with one another. It’s clear the special tax breaks for country clubs benefit only a few.  When wealthy special interests have a major influence over the policy discussions — even around common sense bills to create tax equity — our communities suffer. The county faces a huge budget shortfall, a severe housing crisis, income inequality, and education and opportunity gaps in our schools, to name a few of the pressing issues. Yet, the arguments made by those opposing the bill fail to address these needs. Instead, the country club lobbyist gave lawmakers an ultimatum: kill this bill or workers lose their jobs. All too often, hourly and low wage workers are the first to suffer when management says they need to tighten their belt.   Our policymaking should be focused on the common good. Lawmakers need to hear the voices of everyday people over corporate and big money interests. Our voices — the voices of everyday people — must be central in our policymaking, otherwise we further divide the county into the haves and have nots.

Hoan Dang (Council At-Large)

I strongly backed Delegate Moon’s bill to phase out the special property tax break for Montgomery County country clubs. I was disappointed that this bill was killed by special interests in this County.   This action is another example of why we need more efforts to take money out of politics, such as the public financing of all candidates in Montgomery County from School Board to the General Assembly.

Seth Grimes (Council At-Large)

I support ending special tax treatment for country clubs. Thanks to David Moon for taking a shot. We’ll try again in 2019.

Ben Shnider (Council District 3)

It’s common sense that clubs with annual dues in the tens of thousands of dollars should pay their fair share in taxes when we’re struggling to keep up with vital investments in transportation, school facilities, and other critical infrastructure. It’s not sustainable to keep raising taxes on working families in the County to meet our budgetary needs.

Vaughn Stewart (House D-19)

It’s a shame that this proposal to bring the taxes paid by country clubs in line with the far higher taxes paid by working families and seniors failed to generate wide support. The extra $10 million of revenue per year would be especially beneficial at a time when the county is cutting school funding to address a $120 million budget shortfall caused in part by wealthy residents strategically withholding capital gains. If we can’t afford to pay teachers and staff what they deserve, we can’t afford tax breaks for Montgomery County’s Mar-a-Lagos. I’ve spoken to thousands of District 19 residents since starting this campaign, and they want to know how I’m going to reduce their healthcare costs, create alternatives to traffic congestion, and fully fund their kids’ schools. Not one of them has asked me to continue subsidizing the golf games of our county’s wealthiest few. I look forward to helping Delegate Moon revive this bill next session.

Editor’s Note: All three District 19 Delegates – Bonnie Cullison, Ben Kramer and Marice Morales – voted against the bill.

Chris Wilhelm (Council At-Large)

I’m disappointed that our County and State representatives weren’t willing to stare down the country club lobbyists on this bill, especially when the County is getting ready to balance the budget by cutting from education and other important services. I see this issue through a racial equity lens: how can we claim to “resist” and stand up for our diverse community when so many of our officials were unwilling in this instance to help shift the tax burden from lower and moderate income residents to the ultra wealthy? This is why Montgomery County needs to stop patting itself on the back for being the most progressive place in the world; we aren’t.

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Additionally, institutional supporters of Moon’s bill include SEIU Local 500, MCGEO, National Nurses United, Montgomery County Young Democrats and the Sligo Creek Golf Association (which advocates for a public golf course).

Moon’s statewide bill, which limits but does not abolish the country club tax break, is headed to a hearing before the Ways and Means Committee tomorrow (February 27).  The Chair of the Committee, Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-14), voted against the local version of the bill.

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Moon Explains Failure of Country Club Tax Break Bill

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of the failure of his bill that would have phased out a special property tax break for MoCo country clubs, the Facebook page of Delegate David Moon (D-20) saw an eruption of commenters expressing outrage, disbelief and mockery.  (Some raised the prospect of starting country clubs in their back yards to get similar tax breaks.)  In response to repeated requests, Moon analyzed the arguments against his bill and told the story of how it died.  Moon’s account contains references to a well-intended amendment by Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14), who tried to narrow the bill to allow it to pass.  But he also describes the tactics used by a lobbyist hired by the clubs to kill the bill which demonstrate just how far some special interests will go to protect what they have been granted by government.  We intend to find out what that lobbyist was paid when reports come due.

We reprint Moon’s breakdown of the arguments against his bill below.

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Let me finally try and add some detail to this bill.

Argument 1 – Treating MoCo Differently Than Other Counties: The bill as originally introduced repealed these tax breaks for all of Montgomery County’s golf courses. State law doesn’t allow counties to asses property differently from one another, so the bill needed a constitutional amendment (subject to approval by voters), to give MoCo permission to repeal the Country Club tax breaks. Some people (including Ike Leggett) argued that MoCo shouldn’t be taxing country clubs differently from other counties. I found that argument unpersuasive, as MoCo has a majority of the state’s country clubs receiving this tax break. Additionally, MoCo loses far more money from this tax break than other counties. This is because in 2002, state law created a flat fee for country club assessments at $1,000 an acre. The problem with that is that in MoCo, many of our country clubs are sitting on land worth between $300,000 and $1 million per acre. You will not find that scenario in any other county, as their land is worth far less. So the flat fee seriously harms counties with valuable land. I offered one amendment to change the bill to simply say the county should decide the country club tax assessments, since they are the ones losing money from this. That amendment failed narrowly. But even still, some people simply had a problem with amending the state constitution to fix this problem. I honestly don’t care what the mechanism is to address the issue (we inserted slot machines into our state constitution, for example). I also have a statewide bill (HB 1340) that addresses this issue by changing the $1,000/acre assessment to 1% of market value, to account for the different land values in Maryland. A few of my colleagues suggested this issue should be taken up as a statewide measure and didn’t think it made sense as a local bill. But to be honest, one of the reasons I did both a local bill and a statewide bill is that it will likely be far more difficult to persuade lawmakers from around the state to fix this broken system. It now remains to be seen whether lawmakers who opposed my MoCo bill on the grounds of treating all the counties the same will now support the statewide bill. I will forward the state bill to the County Executive to see if it now addresses his stated concerns.

Argument 2 – Some Country Clubs Are In Poor Financial Shape: A common argument made against my bill is that of the 15 or 16 MoCo golf courses receiving this tax break, not all had wealthy members. Some argued that they were teetering on the brink of closure and would shut down if this bill passed. The country club lobbyist got all the janitors and service staff from the clubs to come to Annapolis and tell lawmakers they would all be fired if the bill passed. It was a true spectacle. I tried to counter this argument with amendments to make the bill more need-based. I proposed that we cap the tax discount at the first $400,000 per acre of market value, so that almost all of the clubs would be unaffected except for the super wealthy ones that charge huge initiation fees ($40,000 to $70,000 just to join). The country club lobbyist opposed this and other amendments. Basically, they were saying this would put courses out of business, but when we proposed amendments to make that not the case, the lobbyist opposed those fixes, too. Nice move! To be fair to my House colleagues, they never had an opportunity to vote for this version of the bill, because we didn’t adopt the narrowing amendments in subcommittee.

Argument 3 – Country Clubs Provide Jobs & Do Charitable Work: Another routine argument during this debate was that the country clubs employ people and let charities use their facilities. My response here is that plenty of entities employ people and do charitable work AND pay their taxes. But what this argument really turns on, is the idea that passing this bill would put the clubs out of business. As I noted above, I had an amendment to address that issue, but the country club lobbyist (who was formerly a State Senator who sponsored the bill for country club tax cuts) opposed the amendment. Come on now.

Argument 4 – Open Space & Those Evil Developers!: Yet another frequently cited argument against my bill was that the country clubs would close and lead to rampant development. The Sierra Club ought to go do a membership drive at country clubs, because apparently there are hundreds of open space conservation activists at country clubs, and we didn’t know it! Kidding aside, there are a number of reasons why this is a flawed argument. First, it assumes that country clubs will close BECAUSE OF this bill. As I noted above, I offered to amend the bill to exclude clubs that are not wealthy. Second, you would have to believe that a wealthy club with hundreds of acres of land worth $1 million/acre and waiting list to join would shut the entire club over a tax bill increase in the thousands. As some have noted, the wealthy clubs could simply add some members or sell a tiny piece of their land IF this was really an issue (and I doubt it is, with the amendments I offered). Moreover, the teetering country clubs are in trouble because there is a generational shift away from golf being a popular hobby. We didn’t throw money at Blockbuster or Tower Records to keep those businesses open when the market shifted on them, but then again, their customers were not wealthy and politically influential people. Additionally, nothing would stop the county from exercising its zoning and staging authority over a failed country club, and I would be willing to bet that’s exactly what would happen if one of these clubs failed. Let’s also be clear that even if you don’t like development, only ONE of these clubs was in the Ag Reserve, and Eric Luedtke offered an amendment which I supported to exclude that club (it was rejected). Many of the clubs inside the beltway are in areas of the county that are zoned for development (not open space), per the master plans that guide county development. If people have a problem with that, they should argue for extending the Ag Reserve to the DC border, near highway exits and transit (an absurd policy proposition). Given that many of these inside-the-beltway clubs are located in highly desirable school districts, this amounts to an argument for residents who are privileged enough to live in the W cluster keeping out others who also want the privilege to live there. The tax implications of this de facto development moratorium are far greater than $10 million a year for the county. Moreover, a supermajority of MoCo lawmakers also cosponsored the bill to drop 50,000 Amazon workers onto the county without worrying about the development implications. But remember once again, that there were amendments offered to take this development issue off the table.

When I first embarked on this effort to rein in country club tax breaks, I thought this would be a simple bill. Boy was I wrong! I now know more than I could’ve imagined about this issue, and the more I learn the more I’m convinced that this situation is seriously messed up. I’ll be back with more legislation on this issue next year, including looking at how we enforce the anti-discrimination provisions regarding country clubs and pesticide restrictions for clubs receiving these tax breaks (since the environmental, open space argument is being made!).

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating podcast on this topic.

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MoCo Delegates Kill Moon Country Club Bill

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s Delegates have killed a local bill proposed by Delegate David Moon (D-20) that would have eliminated a special tax break for country clubs contained in state law.  Seventeen Delegates voted to kill the bill while seven voted in its favor.

Under current state law, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) is permitted to enter into agreements with country clubs possessing golf courses that would set the assessed value of their land at $1,000 per acre.  Moon’s bill would have phased out these agreements in Montgomery County subject to approval by voters.  The fiscal note on the bill indicated that the state government would have received an extra $1 million a year in tax revenue and the county government would have received an extra $10 million a year once the agreements were ended.  Despite the fact that the county just reported a $120 million shortfall, neither the County Executive nor the County Council supported the bill.

Since it was a local bill, the bill needed to clear Montgomery County’s House delegation before advancing to further votes by the county’s Senators and the full General Assembly.  That vote took place this morning.  After two unsuccessful attempts were made to amend the bill, Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-15) made an unfavorable motion on it, which is tantamount to a no vote.  Delegate Sheila Hixson (D-20) seconded the motion.  Seventeen Delegates voted in favor of that motion and seven voted against.  The seven Delegates who voted in support of Moon’s bill were Moon, Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-18), Aruna Miller (D-15), Andrew Platt (D-17), Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18), Shane Robinson (D-39) and Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20).  We reprint the vote tally below.  In reading it, remember that a “Yea” vote is a vote to kill the bill.

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