Friday, February 27, 2009

Snapshot of a Property Tax Bill

Several people have asked about their property tax bill. Since a picture paints a thousand words, I am reprinting a letter I received along with the answer for this specific situation. To learn more about property taxes, read my newsletter.


I recently received my assessment notice and it said that my property value is now $568,130, when it had been $710,360. I expected that such would mean a reduction in my property tax and asked my mortgagee to calculate the escrow needed. They wanted my parcel number and the tax I would pay.

I called the Department of Assessment and Taxation (SDAT) and spoke with an agent there. She said the County Council did not have a new figure but if we used the current system, I would be paying $5,931.50. This is curious since last year when the house supposedly was worth $142,000 more I paid $5,268.77. What justifies a $700 increase?????

Can you explain the rationale that would have a citizen paying a higher property tax when the value of their home had decreased so decidedly?????

I also urge that when the Council convenes to decide the future rate, that they do not increase the rate. I know for certain that my income is not sufficient to pay anything more. As it is I have a house with a tiny footprint and yet I am paying an inordinate amount of tax.


Your assessed value will decline from $710,360 in the current levy year (2008) to $568,130 in levy year 2009.

Your tax bill for the current year, however, also shows that you received a homestead credit in the amount of $206,762 with a taxable assessment of $503,598 (i.e., $710,360 minus $206,762). Since the annual growth in taxable assessment for a principal residence cannot increase more than 10% (with the excess growth becoming the homestead credit), and with rapid growth in home values in the recent past, you have built up a sizable homestead credit over the years. As a result, even though the actual assessment is in excess of $700,000 the taxable assessment used to calculate the property tax is just over $500,000. In fact, without the homestead credit, your property taxes would have been $2,123.43 higher this year.

Turning to next year. Since your taxable assessment growth is capped at 10%, the taxable assessment cannot exceed $553,958 in levy year 2009 (i.e., $503,598 plus 10%). SDAT has assessed your property at $568,130 which exceeds your capped taxable assessment of $553,958 and therefore your taxable assessment will increase the full 10%. In addition, your homestead credit will decline from $206,762 to $14,172 in levy year 2009 (i.e., the difference between $568,130 and $553,958).

Since your assessment was lowered, you received the full decline in the first year, as opposed to increases which are phased-in over three years. For the subsequent year (levy year 2010), you have only a small homestead credit left which will be eliminated as your taxable assessment in levy year 2010 will increase modestly to $568,130 at which time your taxable assessment equals the full assessment amount of SDAT. In addition, in the third year of this assessment cycle (levy year 2011), your assessment (and taxable assessment) will remain unchanged at $568,130.

As a final note, the homestead credit is required under state law and reduces your taxable assessment during periods of rapid growth. However, unless the new assessment from SDAT falls below the taxable assessment, taxpayers will not see a decline in their property taxes (assuming the same tax rates and applicable credits).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Step Forward on Brick Pavers

People with a wide range of disabilities, including wheelchair users, people who use walkers and canes and people with balance problems and seizure disorders find pathways made from brick pavers to be dangerous and restrictive. That’s why I introduced a resolution banning the use of brick pavers in the public right of way in some instances.

We must make sure our community is open to every single member of it. By eliminating brick pavers, we will ensure access for people with disabilities to shopping, recreation and other aspects of community life.

People with limited mobility aren’t the only advocates for this plan, though. The County’s Department of Transportation says that brick paver surfaces are more difficult and costly to maintain than asphalt or concrete. Seniors, people who push baby strollers, and women who wear high heel shoes also have advocated in favor of the ban.

Under the plan, brick pavers will no longer be installed in pedestrian areas in the public right of way, though they may still be used as edge treatments and decorative elements. The plan exempts projects approved before today and does not apply to private residential properties.

The Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee will take up this issue on March 9, and then the measure will go before the full Council, so there is plenty of time to weigh in on this issue. How do you feel about the use of brick pavers on public walkways?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tea Time for Montgomery Women

Join me at Montgomery Women’s Awards Reception and Power Tea on Sunday, March 8, 3:00-5:00 in the afternoon at the Mansion at Strathmore. As chair of this non-partisan organization, I can say with confidence that the tea is one of the county’s best networking opportunities for women. Our membership includes many of the county’s most influential women in business, education, civic affairs, government and politics. We bring together women from all cultural backgrounds to advance common interests and support outstanding women in their quest for positions of power and influence.

This year’s tea, hosted by honorary chair Congresswoman Donna Edwards, will recognize two outstanding women. Yvette Butler, founder and executive director of GapBuster Learning Center, will receive the Rising Star Award while the Shining Star Award will go to Carol Trawick, president of the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation. These two serve as examples of what successful women are all about.

You are welcome to attend this event even if you are not a member for a cost of $25 at the door. Or consider joining Montgomery Women and take part in information briefings, leadership forums and networking events throughout the year. I look forward to seeing you at the tea.

RSVP to Merle Steiner at

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Special Election Dates Coming Soon

Many people have written to me about the vacant District 4 Council seat. Under the law, we must hold a special election for any vacancy that occurs with more than a year left in the term. We plan to resolve the scheduling of that election by the end of this week.

There are a number of factors that we’re looking at, including cost, the availability of schools and state and religious holidays. Some people have suggested that we forego an election and appoint someone to the seat. This would require changing the law, which could be done, but it would take the choice out of the hands of the voters.

Because elected representation is a fundamental right, I take these decisions very seriously. I am continuing to research our options in an effort to maximize both voter engagement and candidate participation. I am committed to making sure everyone has the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. As I continue to work through the details, I encourage you to let me know your thoughts.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Look at Ex Parte Rules

Last week we debated the application of the County’s ex parte law in zoning cases. Under the law, councilmembers must rely solely on the public record when making decisions on requests to change a property’s zoning designation. To maintain the integrity of the process (in other words, to keep politics out of it), councilmembers cannot use in their decision-making any independent research or discussions with the parties involved. Apparently the rules are not as clear as they might be.

The impetus for the discussion was one attorney’s request to meet with councilmembers’ staff members. My aide and I agreed that she would not meet with the attorney. Frankly, folks meet with our staff all the time. As delightful as our staff members are, however, I think that most meetings are designed to channel information to us—the elected policy decision makers—through our staff.

As a result, I believe it is a problem for Councilmember staff to meet with advocates in zoning cases, and I’ve asked the Council staff to revisit our ex parte rules on the subject.

The County Council has a long history of transparency and adherence to high ethical standards. This situation serves as a reminder that we must be vigilant about maintaining an objective distance in zoning cases.

My office will continue our policy of denying meeting requests from parties involved in zoning cases. Such meetings are not helpful to us and run the risk of being used as a back door for influencing decision makers. I respectfully request that applicants and their attorneys refrain from asking for these meetings that put our staff in an awkward position.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

New Approach Needed for WSSC

Last week the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) set a new record with 611 breaks and leaks in January. Granted, it was an especially cold month, but there’s more to the problem than just a few degrees.

We learned at the January 27th briefing by the WSSC that the agency’s commissioners are unable to work together and remain stalemated on important issues such as the appointment of a general manager. I was appalled to learn that after two of the costliest and most dangerous water main breaks in the agency’s history, the Commission has yet to have any conversation about the causes, let alone an action plan for the future. These failures are placing public health and safety at risk.

The WSSC is a state-chartered agency that provides public water and sewer services to 1.8 million residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. It is governed by three commissioners from each county, appointed by the respective county executives. The two county councils jointly approve the annual WSSC budget.

I have nothing but respect for the Montgomery County commissioners and the agency’s hard-working employees, but modest legislative fixes will not do the job. I urge the General Assembly to replace the current structure with one that can act quickly on matters of public health and safety. It is time to eliminate the ongoing political manipulation. I propose that we break the logjam with legislation to add three commissioners to be appointed by the Governor. All three must meet strict professional qualifications, and none could be a resident of either county. This is something we could do immediately. It’s time—it’s way past time—to fix WSSC.

On December 23, a 66-inch concrete pipe water main broke near River Road. Although there were no major injuries resulting from the break, 15 motorists and passengers had to be rescued from the flooding via swift water boats and by helicopter.

In January, a break in a 42-inch main caused a three-day boil water advisory for 90,000 homes and businesses in Prince George’s County. Other major disruptions have occurred in recent years. In fact, the WSSC experienced 1,709 water main breaks and leaks in 2008, its fifth worst year since 1984. In 2007, the WSSC set a new record for water main breaks with 2,129.

In my six years as a Councilmember and chair of the committee charged with overseeing WSSC, I’ve tried to work within the system to make improvements. But I am now convinced that we must start anew and construct a different kind of WSSC.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Clarksburg Water Quality Issues Update

Yesterday, the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, which I chair, heard a briefing on the water quality issues in Clarksburg as identified in the Special Protection Area Program Annual Report.

The Special Protection Area (SPA) program has been in place since 1994 and monitors four geographic areas with high quality or unusually sensitive water resources. Although the report also documents findings in the Paint Branch, Piney Branch and Upper Rock Creek areas, we focused our briefing on Clarksburg and Ten Mile Creek as this area showed a decline in water quality despite the use of best management practices (BMPs) for sediment and erosion control (during construction) and stormwater management (post-construction).

These results are important, not just because of our mission to protect the environment, but also because the SPA report is one of the factors to be considered before development in the Stage 4 area of Clarksburg (Ten Mile Creek) is allowed to move forward according to the Clarksburg Master Plan.

Stream conditions were in the good to excellent range from 1995 to 2002 in Clarksburg. Now conditions are rated fair to good. The decline is attributed to the unexpected downturn in the construction economy and its consequences on the landscape (rapid start of construction followed by delays, leaving large areas of land disturbed); the fact that most construction-related controls have not been converted from sediment and erosion control to stormwater management; and the density of the development.

We looked at some possible fixes for the near and long term. For example, we may need to site stormwater facilities concurrently with other utilities and infrastructure rather than after roads and other major infrastructure. Also, developers could be given the option to have the Department of Environmental Protection conduct environmental monitoring for a fee, which would allow for more consistency. The County’s Department of Environmental Protection is also working with the Department of Permitting Services to review and improve the BMPs to be employed in future developments.

It is unclear when or whether water quality in the Clarksburg Special Protection Area will recover from development stresses. Essentially, the overall effect of development on the watershed can only be evaluated once construction in the watershed is completed. We do know that we need to stay on top of this issue and tighten controls as much as possible. Before moving forward on any land use decisions, we expect additional recommendations from the Planning Board and the County Executive, so stay tuned.