Letter to the Editor: Talbot County Tax Revenue & Tax Caps

Beginning on March 18, 2018, with Councilman Price’s excellent Guess Comment Column detailing why Talbot County needs moderate growth in its tax revenue, I have read numerous comments published on the subject.

First, I think it should be said Councilman Price did a masterful job explaining the fiscal needs of the County and the challenges the Council faces funding those needs.

Second, I think many comments on Price’s March 18 column, some published in this paper (e.g. Mr. Desanctis, Mr. Howell ), some Talbot Spy comments, all recognize our County has legitimate fiscal needs. To me, the questions really boil down to two points. First, what is a “true need” vs. a “wish list”. Second, how do the citizens fund those “true needs.”

On the first point of “true needs”, in general such are driven by two components. The first should not be controversial, as we all understand and experience inflation, the costs we pay for things, every day. Hence, whether it’s the CPI-U or some other recognized index, such should be built into each approved budget without any cap or artificial ceiling.

The second, however, is another story altogether. In any political subdivision the demand for more and more government services will be never ending. Since demand for those services, and those mandated to the County by the State, are what generate much of the needs for County revenues, it’s obvious that those demands are a self- fulfilling prophesy for never ending tax increases. And that is where the rub comes in to play. What is a ‘need, or demand, for essential services’ by a liberal constituent will not be the same as that for a conservative constituent. And that will never change. So, as the debate on tax revenue and the tax cap moves forward, the Council must recognize, and in the proper context emphasize, that close examination and strong justification will continue for any requests coming from the demand side of the equation.

Why is that important? Simply put, because those paying the bills (the taxpayers) don’t want to see a blank check given to those spending our money. All of us living in this beautiful County have skin in the game. Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat or Independent, we all have a stake. Our taxes pay the County’s bills, the Councils salaries, our votes elect the Council members. It is, indeed, right and proper to have legitimate, civil, informed debate on all issues. That said, when done, the Council’s budget must conform to the wishes of the majority.

Second, how do we citizens fund those “true needs?” In the feature article published March 25, 2018, on Councilman Callahan, I was much encouraged to hear him described as a listener and doer, and a calm voice of reason. Talking about the tax Callahan says “I’m not smart enough to know how to craft it, but I’m smart enough to understand that’s where we need to go.” And he adds “When (a citizen) reads it, it better be short, and you better know where the money is going period. Because the citizens are going to have to make the decision.” Well put Councilman Callahan!

Stated another way, we citizens need a plan easy to understand, identifying where our money is going to go, which also means the Council needs to understand the same thing. We don’t need a plan that is complicated, we don’t need a plan designed by the County attorney, we don’t need a plan designed by County staff. The plan should be designed, proposed and explained to us by the Councilman proposing it. Those are the people we elect.

Councilman Price is capable enough and dedicated enough to analyze the details of the County’s fiscal needs and design a plan to address them. Councilman Price is articulate enough to explain her analysis and plan to us in a straightforward, honest manner. And Councilman Price suggests a simple, finite, not open ended, solution to address our County’s tax revenue “true needs.”

I would support the concept of “The Price Penny Plan.” To get it on the ballot for all of us to vote upon, four of the Council members must approve and do so. If any of the other four Council members has an alternative plan, let them propose it and explain it in detail as Price did. Otherwise, let’s put “The Price Penny Plan” before the voters to decide. It’s a big step in the right direction.

Paul D. Denton
Easton

 

Letter to Editor: NextStep 190 Code Revision Does Not Protect Residential Neighborhoods

The County’s NextStep 190 Code Revision process has been going on for months. The current revision has been vetted by the Planning Office, the County attorneys, the Planning Commission, and is expected to go to the County Council soon for a vote. Many people have contributed time and recommendations to the process, including those from several neighborhoods with or threatened with short-term vacation rentals (STRs). A growing number of people advocating for reasonable limitations on STRs has been increasingly vocal about the problems these unsupervised “mini-hotels” bring to neighborhoods, the most basic of which is disruption to the peaceful quality of life for the residents who live near them.

Among the suggestions offered by these concerned neighbors are limiting the length and number of STRs, requiring the rental property to be the owner’s primary residence (beneficial to residents), requiring the rental property to be accessible by public and not private roads, and improving County monitoring. The most important and foolproof recommendation is that the County find a way to allow neighborhoods to opt out of STRs, whether by zoning or through neighborhood bylaws and covenants prohibiting such activity.

However, instead of protecting our quality of life by adopting reasonable STR limitations that would help preserve our neighborhoods, the current code revision proposes to continue issuing unlimited STR licenses (including opening the door to “corporations” while insisting that STRs are not commercial businesses!) almost anywhere, anytime. Talbot County considers neighborhood covenants “private agreements,” an absurd cop-out, and is unwilling to change that interpretation or to respect those “agreements.” The County also absolves itself of any responsibility for causing havoc for homeowners in STR-impacted neighborhoods. Mistakenly assuming that a few regulations and a nod to better monitoring will change human behavior, County leaders continue to ignore the basic fact that vacationers and residents have different and conflicting lifestyles.

Fully three-quarters of the STR licenses issued by Talbot County this year went to property owners who are not County residents. Who benefits from these STRs and who doesn’t? Nonresident investors (who do not vote here) get what they want, realtors and property managers make a buck, lawyers get more clients, and the County receives revenue from rental taxes, while our residential neighborhoods get the shaft and commercial hotels and B & Bs get less visitor business. As supposed stewards of the public good, the County Council has been fully involved in this process. Councilmembers Callahan, Pack and Williams have so far failed to offer or support any additions or changes that would protect and strengthen the rights of resident property owners over business, wedding and entertainment interests.

What happened to the “unusually high quality of life” vision for residents in the County’s recently-approved Comprehensive Plan? It’s time to start looking at the new 2018 candidates for County Council. We deserve better leadership.

Donna and Bill Dudley
Holly and Paul Fine
Ashby/Easton, MD

Letter to the Editor: Maryland’s Attorney General must Serve the Public; not Political Bosses

Recent news reports provide strong evidence that State Attorney General Brian Frosh is a rabidly partisan career politician and not a self proclaimed advocate for all Marylanders.

Simply put, Frosh is using his power and your tax dollars to help Maryland Democrats maintain their long time and vise like grip on politics in Maryland.

This sordid saga of absolute power saga corrupting absolutely started when former Governor Martin O’Malley bypassed a public commission he created to redraw the states’s Congressional district boundaries.

In a court proceeding, O’Malley said he was convinced as Governor that the Democrat Party should draw lines that are favorable to Democratic candidates. In that proceeding O’Malley aslo said “That was my hope it was also my intent to create….a district where the people would be more likely to elect a Democrat than a Republican”.

To do that O’Malley used a consultant who did work for the Democrat members of the state’s congressional delegation. That consultant stated in a court deposition the “The purpose of what we were doing was, No.1. incumbent protection. And No. 2, trying to see if there was a way that there was another Democrat district in the state”.

O’Malley along with the Democrats who control the State Senate and State House in Maryland, ultimately succeeded with their purpose. After the boundaries of Congressional District 6 were redrawn the incumbent Republican Congressman was defeated for re-election. As a result Maryland lost a member of Congress with 20 years of seniority and replaced him with a freshman who will not be accruing any seniority going forward as he recently launched an effort to secure the 2020 Democrat nomination for President with results that are likely to rival Martin O’Malleys efforts on the national stage.

Even former Governor O’Malley recently publicly acknowledged that the redistricting effort wasn’t good for our country as a whole”.

Despite all of this, Brian Frosh is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a legitimate requiest to review a lower court decision upholding this gerrymandered Congressional District.

When given an opportunity to help reverse a wrong, Frosh goes in the opposite direction. Worse yet, this purely political decision means he is focusing less attention on more pressing issues like the opioid crisis and crime in Baltimore City.

We deserve better. Much better.

Connie Sheer
Wittman

Letter to Editor: Talk to Your Kids about Alcohol

While the use of heroin dominates our news, alcohol remains the most commonly used and abused substance among our youth.

According to the latest youth survey, about 65 percent of Talbot County high school students have had at least one drink. And, about 12 percent of our high schoolers have driven after drinking.

Parents are a powerful source of positive and reliable information. In fact, research has shown that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to use these substances than those who don’t have such conversations.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, here are some guidelines that can help parents talk about alcohol and drug use:

Listen before you talk: For kids, knowing that someone is really listening is most important. Ask open-ended questions. Be involved. Be honest and open. Be

positive: talking about these issues can build bridges rather than walls. And remember, addiction is a chronic, progressive disease that can be linked to family history and genetics. So, if you there is a family history of problems be matter of fact about it, as one would be with any other chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

The longer children can delay drinking and drug use, the less likely they are to develop problems. Parents can make a difference – that’s why it is so important to help your child connect the dots and make smart decisions.

To learn more about how to prevent alcohol and other drug use or abuse in your child, contact Alexandra Duff, Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention Supervisor at Talbot County Health Department, at 410-819-5600.

The Talbot County Health Department Prevention Office helps community groups, agencies and individuals in providing programs and activities to prevent alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse, and to build a healthier community. Resources include parenting skills, video and resource loan library, awareness campaigns and educational workshops.

Alexandra Duff
Talbot County Health Department Prevention Supervisor

Letter to Editor: Talbot County Revenue Cap Increase will Benefit Everyone

In a column that appeared in the March 18 Star-Democrat and the Talbot Spy, Councilmember Laura Price argues in favor of what she calls the “Price Penny Plan,” an increase of one cent in Talbot County’s current property tax rate, from 57.08Ȼ to 58.08Ȼ per $100 of assessed valuation. That’s an increase of slightly more than 1.75%, and would increase property tax revenues by about $672,112 a year.

That’s a good start. She also makes a good point about the education supplement: It benefits education alone, and no other county departments. But every department needs more money each year, and a meaningful increase in the revenue cap is needed to provide it. As I have said before, it might be tempting to think of calls for revenue cap reform as the whining of greedy teachers and school administrators. But as I’ve also said before, think again. An insufficient annual budget squeezes many county departments. An increase in property tax revenue would remind us that, as President John F. Kennedy once said, “A rising tide buoys all boats.” And since Ms. Price notes that, “the same services will cost more,” plenty of county departments (22 in fiscal year 2018, to be exact) could use that rising tide.

Granted, as Councilmember Price points out, education receives slightly more than half of the county’s annual budget. But every taxpayer is getting his money’s worth. For absolutely everyone has a vested interest in good public schools. Students and their parents are the most obvious stakeholders. Even those whose families are not in school have a horse in this race. In case of emergency, we all want firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical services to be there when we need them. And we want them to be adequately staffed, trained and equipped. Adequate equipment includes, for example, police cars, ambulances and fire trucks that don’t break down on the way when you’re in distress. Adequate training begins long before public servants enter the police academy, EMT training or the fire academy: when they’re students in our public schools. The same is true of auto mechanics, nurses, computer technicians, and a host of other workers on whose specialized skills we all depend every day.

Talbot County is attractive to potential new residents because ours is the lowest property tax rate in the state. But beware of false economies. Savvy home buyers also appreciate the value of good schools and other public services. The current revenue cap, if not amended, will degrade the quality of our schools and other public services, making Talbot County less appealing – and home resale values commensurately lower.

This is no time to be penny wise and pound foolish. In fiscal year 2018, the final county budget came in $3,665,925 – 4.2% — below total department requests. So while the Price Penny Plan is a step in the right direction, $672,112 won’t cut it. (The “additional $3 million” the councilmember cites is based on four years of her plan.) A bolder step is needed. The County Council must find the political courage to put a larger increase in the revenue cap on the November ballot, and especially to close the CPI-U loophole.

Pete Howell
Easton

Letter to Editor: Democrat Victory In PA Election – Does It Have Meaning for the 1st District?

 

The special election for Congress in the 18th district of Pennsylvania drew national attention by attracting intense high-profile campaigning from President Trump, and former Vice President Biden. This Democratic victory is widely viewed as having implications beyond local politics in at least two respects: it reflects an indication of a trend toward increasing Democratic party strength and diminishing support for President Trump.

The election to fill the vacated congressional seat was won by Conor Lamb, a young, military veteran with prior legal experience, but
politically he is a novice. He ran successfully to unseat Rick Saccone, an older politician seeking a fifth congressional representative term. Saccone allied himself closely with Trump and took positions on issues in line with far-right Republicans.

The voting history of Pennsylvania’s 18th district is also of interest. Despite having a slightly higher party registration of Democrats (46%) than Republicans (42%), the last eight elections have been won by Republicans. The 18th district is oddly drawn to include a large part of Pittsburgh, along with rural territory populated by workers in factories, often producing steel. Analysis of voting records there reveals frequent swing voters cro ssing party lines.

Also worth noting is the difference in financial support for each candidate in the 18th district. Saccone received surprisingly large external funding more than $10 million from national Republican sources, while external Democratic party funding for Lamb was less than $2 million. The difference in local fundraising between the two candidates was also significant. Lamb received local donations of approximately $4 million that were four-times greater than what Saccone was able to raise.

Are there direct similarities between the Pennsylvania 18th district election and the upcoming Maryland 1st district US. House of
Representatives election? It certainly would seem so.

The most obvious similarity is the effort of the Democratic party will be making to unseat an established Republican. Although we must wait until June for primary results, it already appears that the Democratic challenger will present local voters with very clear differences from the Republican right wing and Trump/Harris policies.

As of now, it looks like the Democrats will offer a field of four candidates in the ongoing primary process. One particular standout, with attributes similar to Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb, is third-generation Marylander, Jesse Colvin. Colvin is a young war veteran who served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with distinction as an Army Ranger. Following that he pursued a successful business career which he has interrupted to return to the service of his country.

The Pennsylvania 18th district election was indeed “special” in quite some ways, and its significance appears to have meaning for Maryland. One important lesson it teaches is the need to consider our own elections as “special” also — all of them. Voting is of primary importance. Citizen participation in shaping the direction of government is the most treasured element of our democracy.

Hugh (Jock) G. Beebe
Easton

Letter to the Editor: Andy Harris, Guns and the “Slippery Slope”

Congressman Andy Harris is locked and loaded on guns. I listened to his recent telephone town hall (he no longer does in person town halls) in which he advises his constituents that expanding gun background checks, raising the age of rifle purchases or banning assault style weapons would violate our Second Amendment right to bear arms. This was particularly astounding to me because he readily admitted that there is no Second Amendment violation resulting from the longstanding ban on automatic weapons or the 21 year age requirement to buy a handgun.

Why are the new proposed gun safety measures qualitatively different from these existing limitations on gun rights?

Harris’s position is entirely consistent with the NRA (which has contributed more than $20,000 to his campaigns), but finds scant support in judicial legal decisions, including Supreme Court’s landmark decision in U.S. v. Heller. In that case, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, explicitly states that the “Constitution leaves open a variety of regulatory tools to combating the problem of gun violence in this country.” Essentially, Harris’s position on guns relies on the “slippery slope” argument—any new gun safety laws will lead to the eventual elimination of the right of the individual to own guns.

In light of our mounting gun death toll, the slippery slope scare tactic is clearly losing sway with the American public. Indeed, the slippery slope seems to be in the other direction: The organized Parkland school students demanding action on guns, Senator Rubio’s break with the NRA on age limits, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, the Florida Republican Senate (voting for a 21 year age limit on gun purchases), even President Trump’s flirtation with Senator Feinstein’s effort to re-impose the ban on assault rifles. What this tells me is the slippery slope is paving the way for common sense gun legislation and Andy Harris’s exit as our Representative in the 1st District.

To draw upon one of the NRA’s favorite memes: WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO KEEP A BAD GUY FROM BUYING A GUN? IT’S A LOT OF GOOD GUYS WITH BALLOTS. (And let us not to forget the women and millennials leading this cause.)

Congressman Harris, we are locked and loaded for the midterm elections.

Warren Davis
Oxford, MD

Letter to Editor: Time to Raise the Revenue Cap in Talbot County

The Talbot County Council is once again wrestling with the question of what to do about the county’s property tax revenue cap. As things stand now and for the past several years, annual property tax revenues cannot increase over the previous year by more than 2% or the Consumer Price Index-Urban (CPI-U), whichever is less. Two percent might be a reasonable limit, but from 2010-2015, the CPI-U came in well under 2% in five of six years. Annual increases of 0.55% or less are negligible, especially when viewed cumulatively.

The revenue cap has stymied efforts to collect more property taxes, and kept Talbot County’s tax rate in last place statewide. The current property tax rate is 57.08Ȼ per $100 of assessed value. To be exact, even with the Educational Supplement, our tax rate is 43.8% below the statewide average. The property tax rate in the county with the second-lowest rate in Maryland (Worcester) is 46% higher than it is in Talbot. Our tax rate is truly an extreme outlier.

In the normal course of events, when property values and assessments increase, as they have since the end of the recession of 2007-2009, property tax revenues increase accordingly. But the course of events in Talbot County is not normal. Rather, it harks back to the dark, 20th-century days of the Constant Yield, when, the property tax rate actually fell from one year to the next because the county was prohibited from collecting any more property tax revenue than is had in the previous year.

Since education consumes almost half of the county’s annual budget, it is tempting to think of calls for revenue cap reform as the whining of greedy teachers and administrators. But think again. An insufficient annual budget squeezes many county departments. In fiscal year 2018, for example, 22 of 61 departments were not fully funded. An increase in property tax revenue would remind us that, as President John F. Kennedy once said, “A rising tide buoys all boats.”

What about the effects of a rising tide? A 1% increase, to 3%, would generate $344,000 in additional revenue for the county. A 2% increase, to 4%, would generate an extra $688,000.

And what about the cost? A 2% increase in the revenue cap, from 2% to 4%, would only cost the owner of a million-dollar home less than an additional $100 a year!

In the interest in meeting the needs of its citizens and continuing to provide the high level of services that we have come to expect, it’s time for the County Council to bite the bullet and raise the revenue cap. At the very least, the CPI-U loophole should be closed.

Pete Howell
Easton

Letter to Editor: For A Sane Gun Policy; America’s Ready

A recent Quinnipiac Poll conducted in February this year revealed that American voters support stricter gun controls by a 66 to a 31 majority, the highest level it’s ever been. An 83 to 14 percent majority supports mandatory waiting periods; a 67 to 29 percent supports a ban on assault rifles and an almost 75 to 15 percent of Americans feels congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.

If these figures are remotely indicative of our present situation, why is congress so intimidated by the gun lobby? The majority of Americans are for stricter gun controls and the country is behind a sane gun policy, so where’s the hang up?

George Stephanopoulos, president Clinton’s then spokesperson, once offered this thought, what he called “one small vote for the NRA.” He said of the organization that its members diligently call their congressmen, or write to them, vote regularly, are generous contributors to the organization and aggressively stand up for what they believe. In an ironic way, he offered the NRA member as a profile of a democracy’s model citizen. If that’s true of its membership majority, Stephanopoulos may be on to something significant.

The difficulty getting sane gun laws may lie less with the NRA than with a passive and disorganized electorate that feels outraged but hasn’t focused the outrage into well-organized political muscle.

I was surprised to learn that few actual candidates are bankrolled by the NRA. Instead, they strategically pour millions into negative ads against any unsympathetic candidates they identify.

According to Sunday’s New York Times of 2/25, “It’s really not the contributions,” said Cleta Mitchell, a former N.R.A. board member. “It’s the ability of the N.R.A. to tell its members: Here’s who’s good on the Second Amendment.”
“Far more than any check the N.R.A. could write, it is this mobilization operation that has made the organization such a challenging adversary for Democrats and gun control.”

The NRA also gains political potency by presenting a single focused agenda with an unambiguous message- great for sound bites: you’re safer owning a gun, and your government wants to take them away. They project a dominoes theory – let the government take our assault rifles away, and then they’ll take our shotguns and pistols, next.

Gun safety advocates clearly have the numbers. Now we need to seize the moment and get organized.

George Merrill
St. Michaels

Letter to Editor: Enough?

“This is not the time to address gun violence,” we were told as the recipients of millions from the NRA tweeted their thoughts and prayers. We have experienced 18 school shootings so far this year, but having the unthinkable become the predictable might mean we have nowhere to move but in a positive direction.

President Trump has revoked 14 executive orders issued during the Obama administration. It may be years before we know whether or not he succeeds in killing the Clean Power Plan, but he has signed a bill blocking background checks for mental illness from being required for gun purchases.

97 percent of us want background checks, and Parkland’s high school students are insisting we “do something.” They’re not just waiting around, either. They’re walking out of schools, meeting with state legislators, and going to Washington. Survivor David Hogg explained, “If we don’t take action, because our politicians won’t, more are going to die.”

Donald Trump Jr., the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank Aleksandr Torshin, and candidate Trump had attended the 2016 annual meeting of the NRA. They reportedly shared “gun-related small talk” as Trump’s candidacy was endorsed. The NRA would contribute over $30 million to the Trump campaign.

Federal Election Commission regulations prohibit foreign nationals from ”directing, dictating, controlling, or indirectly participating in the decision-making process” of our elections. The possible funneling of Russian funds to the Trump campaign through the NRA is worth investigation. Millions have been spent by Russians on hacking our election sites and social media, and Everytown USA has called upon the NRA to “come clean” about its relationship with Russia.

President Trump tweeted, “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.” His tweets angered survivors. He may have forgotten that his 2019 budget cut funding to states for reporting to the federal database.

The meetings with students and families were timely, but elicited observations that the high school students sounded like adults, while our president, with a crib sheet, sounded like a high school student – and one that has delivered misstatements at an alarming rate. With a bit of research we know he has not “signed more bills in his first 6 months than any other president,” doesn’t have the “biggest defense budget ever,” and has not given us “the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.”

The numbers are very clear when it comes to school shootings; and while the record number of guns sold in 2016 may have led some of us to believe we’re safer, the frequency of school shootings has increased from an average of 1 per week since 2012 according to Everytown research to 18 so far this year, or 3 per week.

Support for stricter gun laws has hit a 10-year high, and a recent survey has found that only 29 percent of Americans think our president is doing enough to prevent mass shootings. School walk-outs and demonstrations across our nation may have convinced him that doing nothing has become politically untenable.

He has called upon his Department of Justice for proposals to ban bump stocks and improve background checks, but this may be a relatively weak solution. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sent a letter to Congress in 2013 stating, “Stocks of this kind are not subject to the provisions of federal firearms studies.”

Legislation would be more effective, but the House recently rejected yet another proposal to ban semiautomatic weapons, and prioritized declaring pornography a health risk.

“We should have a national school sit-out, where nobody goes back to school until laws are passed,” David Hogg has suggested.

Donald Trump Jr. “liked” the tweets attacking him and suggesting he was a fabrication of “the mainstream media.”

Another student offered, “That is what we do with things that fail. We change them.” The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in world, and our homicide rate is more than three times higher than in any other developed nation.

President Obama required the checks for mental illness that were revoked by President Trump, and President Obama was recently ranked among our top ten presidents.

That could matter to President Trump, who was ranked at the bottom of the list by the politically diverse group of 170 presidential scholars. He has suggested that the FBI “get back to the basics and make us all proud.” Things might work for everyone if our elected representatives were to take this advice.

Carol Voyles
Talbot County