The Maryland Association of Counties Legislative Committee has continued to meet every week and review proposed legislation. In the General Assembly, the Senate has introduced 977 bills and the House 1429 bills thus far. The introductions are beginning to slow down, but MACo is playing catchup on all those bills. We considered 49 new bills this week, the most so far. With that, let me get to it and tell you about the most interesting ones of the week.
HB1259 / SB871, “Accessory Dwelling Unit Authorization and Promotion Act” would establish a policy requiring the “creation of accessory units on land zoned for single family residential, in order to meet the housing needs of the citizens of the State.” The bill states: “Each legislative body SHALL adopt a local law authorizing the development of accessory dwelling units on land zoned for single–family residential use” and “SHALL apply to all land in the local jurisdiction zoned for single–family residential use.”
Apparently, county zoning officials had a “collective stroke” when they read this bill. Every county has its own zoning laws for a reason and we go through extensive procedures and public hearings to establish them. We have our Comprehensive Plans and zone areas of the county differently for appropriate uses. Though the bill says it does not alter or repeal any zoning power or authority granted to a local jurisdiction,” that seems in direct conflict with its intent and use of the word “shall” throughout the bill. Accessory dwellings are not appropriate in all areas and this bill would not allow the county to have any oversight into these important land use decisions. Local autonomy should be very closely protected. This is about the most egregious overstep from the State I’ve seen in years and it is what MACo will fight to protect.
HB979, “Tax Sales – Homeowner Protection Program Automatic Enrollment and Funding.” This bill is an add on to a program that passed last year. If someone is unable to pay their water or sewer bills, then the county typically uses the tax sale process to enforce the lien for unpaid charges, resulting in private tax sale of the property. This bill is helpful for low-income citizens because the State comes in and pays the amount owed so it doesn’t go into tax sale and the County is made whole right away.
Currently, qualified applicants have to apply for the Homeowner Protection Fund and this bill repeals the requirement that the department limit the maximum number of homeowners who may be enrolled and would automatically add these citizens. The language states “the Department shall pay the county or municipal corporation the full amount of the tax lien on the homeowner’s dwelling and assume exclusive responsibility for collecting the outstanding tax debt.” This is all about enabling people to stay in their homes while not burdening the county with uncollected debt.
SB760, “Property Tax Exemption – Religious Group – Third Party Leases.” Counties grant property tax waivers to many types of non-profit organizations, including churches. Sometimes that religious institution then leases it to a group that is not exempt. This bill would change the property tax exemption if the land or building is leased to another party and the property tax would be payable. We are more than happy to grant this allowance, but this is a problem in some areas, in particular, Baltimore City, where approximately 1/3 of their land is considered tax-exempt and no property taxes are being collected. They, and other jurisdictions need the revenue to pay for municipal and county services. Additionally, this bill is uniform across the State and does not leave it up to the local jurisdictions to determine the appropriateness of these requests.
Are you sensing a theme to so many of the bills this year, and for that matter, every year? There are different levels of Government for a reason. Programs that are best run and decided upon by either the Federal, State or Local governments. At the local level, you elected us because we are closest to the people, closest to the land and closest to the revenue needs that enable us to provide the necessary services to you, our citizens who are paying the taxes.
MACo is busy testifying every day, along with many of our elected officials on the issues that are so important to all of you. Bills are starting to move out of their committees and some legislation has made it onto the full floor of either the Senate or the House for them to take their votes. My future reports will start to focus on what has moved forward, what has been amended, along with what has “died” for this year. I’m optimistic because MACo’s four legislative initiatives are moving in a positive direction right now and I look forward to providing the updates on those as well. Don’t forget to stay involved and lend your voice to the many issues that Annapolis is talking about.
Laura Everngam-Price is President of the Executive Board of Directors of Maryland Association of Counties, former chair and current member of Budget and Tax, member of MACo’s Initiative subcommittee, Talbot’s legislative liaison and member of the Talbot County Council.