Talbot County citizens are fortunate to live in the lowest-tax jurisdiction in Maryland. Property tax rates in Talbot are the lowest in the state, and the local income tax rate is second-lowest, above only oceanfront Worcester County. The low property tax rate can attract buyers and businesses to our county, and the tax cap, written into our county charter, has been so effective that we are now facing unintended consequences—threats to public safety and emergency services.
This year, the County Council, concerned over the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, opted to leave property tax rates unchanged and held all departments except the Sheriff’s office funded at last year’s levels.
The exception for the Sheriff’s office was to increase deputies pay by $5,000 per year to keep pace with the lowest funded police departments in the region. The move was insufficient, however. Despite the increase, the Sheriff was unable to recruit any new deputies this year to fill open positions. Having the least attractive retirement program in the region also hurts.
Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances and crews are stationed around the county, but the county needs another unit. Average response time is now 7 minutes and 41 seconds—within the critical 8-minute standard. But there are times every unit is responding to a call, and what happens when the next call comes in? And if you are in the northern parts of the county, the average response time is between 10 and 11 minutes—critical minutes that can affect health outcomes. The county needs to add a unit, likely in Cordova, but that requires a capital investment and operational funding for personnel—and there just isn’t room now to raise the revenues to cover this essential emergency service.
With property tax rates held flat, and the modest increase in spending, the difference is budgeted to come out of the county’s reserve funds. This is appropriate. When the economy was favorable, the county built up modest reserves; as the economy goes into recession, we spend those reserves to maintain basic services until the economy recovers. But the county cannot indefinitely outspend its current revenues.
Maryland mandates what we spend on our court system and the minimum that we spend on public schools. The state allows the county to exceed its tax cap to fund the schools. But there is no state mandate to fund the Sheriff’s department, or ambulance services, or road repairs. And so it is those services that suffer when the current cap forces cuts.
Ballot questions on Charter Amendments B, C, and D address these shortfalls.
Question B is merely a technical fix so that there is a practical way to calculate the cap on the property tax.
Question C eliminates the consumer price index-urban (CPI-U) as an alternative cap and fixes the cap at a simple 2%. Currently, if CPI-U is lower that 2%, the inflation rate serves as the cap. In 2020, CPI-U was 1.9%, so that set the maximum property tax could be raised. However, the County Council, exercising prudence and judgement, looking at the economic outlook for the year, did not raise the rate at all, leaving property tax at 2019 rates.
If the Council had raised the property tax rate as much as the CPI-U allowed, the owner of a home assessed at the median home price ($326,216) would have owed an extra $17. If the higher 2% cap had been in effect, the property tax bill would have been less than $2 more. Just $2. Amendment C’s impact, if it passes, will be quite small.
Question D would temporarily, for 5 years only, allow the Council to add a penny to the property tax rate above the current cap. For the same owner of a home assessed at the median home price of $326, 238, the increase would be just $32.
If Charter Amendments B, C, and D all pass, and the Council opts to levy the maximum increases under the reformed cap, Talbot County will still have the lowest property tax rates in the State of Maryland. But instead of an understaffed Sheriff’s department and ambulance services stretched thin, the county will be able to support these vital public safety and emergency services functions.
If you support public safety and emergency services, vote FOR the Charter Amendments B, C, and D. Do it for your family’s safety. Do it for your neighbors. Do it for your own good. Vote FOR B, C, and D.
TALBOT COUNTY COUNCIL
Corey Pack, President
Chuck Callahan, Vice President
Frank Divilio, Council Member
Pete Lesher, Council Member
Laura Price, Council Member