Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Great Talbot Tax Myth

Talbot County, Maryland. "The Hamptons of the Chesapeake Bay." Home to St. Michael's, Oxford, several scenic rivers and creeks, and many waterfront farmsteads that predate the failed British attempt to extinguish the rebellion in her American colonies. And the patriotic cause of 1776 is relevant in this conversation, fought as it was, in part, over the implications surrounding taxation.

To the delight of many of those waterfront farm owners (and God bless them!), Talbot County has the lowest property tax rate in the state. And it's not just that it's lower than every other county, but just how much lower; compared to some counties, the Talbot rate is fully 50% lower or more.

Much has been made recently by some folks in Queen Anne's County about why that Talbot County tax rate is so low. Those people, who represent interest groups singularly dedicated to increasing development in our county, have taken full-page advertisements out in local papers focusing almost entirely on Talbot County's tax rates. Why would a Queen Anne's County-based interest group spend money on an advertisement that talks so much about Talbot County?

It's a good question. Turns out, the developers in Queen Anne's County really want, no, they NEED you to believe that the reason why Talbot County's taxes are so low is because Talbot County has Big Box retail stores. The ad in question, even goes so far as to ask: "Why are Queen Anne's County taxes so high? Because we don't have Walmart, Staples, [etc]." And why on earth do they need you to believe that a few stores are responsible for Talbot County's ridiculously low tax rates? Because they want you to vote on election day to bring Big Box retail to Queen Anne's County.

Seeing this ad got me thinking about why Talbot's tax rates were so low, so I started to dig around. And what did I find? Well, not surprisingly, having a few Big Box establishments is hardly the reason Talbot's taxes are low; here's the real story:

For years and years, Talbot County has been a 'tax capped' county, which means that in no single year can the county raise property taxes more than 2%. But in each of the last three years, Talbot County has in fact raised their taxes to the limit of the tax cap. In 2012, due to the county's inability to meet its Board of Education funding requirements, the County Commissioners even overrode the county's tax cap to levy an additional tax to make up for the school budget shortfall. These tax increases come even as Talbot County has cut $20 million from its county budget over the past five years.

The real reason Talbot's taxes are so low is because Talbot committed itself, years ago, to keeping its government small, no matter how painful that decision might turn out to be. Discovering just what that means in application is important as we attempt to compare Talbot's apples to Queen Anne's oranges.

In Talbot County, citizens can expect a much longer response time from their emergency services (fire, police and EMS) than we can in Queen Anne's County, where emergency response times are very quick for a rural county and a point of pride for Department of Emergency Services leadership. But call for an ambulance in Trappe, and you might find yourself waiting longer than you might like, indeed longer than you can well afford. Talbot County also pays their sheriff deputies some of the lowest salaries in the state, and of course requires each deputy to cover more ground, with less effect, and all for less money. 

Whether it's EMS, fire, or police, Talbot County spends almost half what Queen Anne's County spends to keep their citizens safe. When I sat on the Queen Anne's County Budget Task Force, no one from the public, and I mean no one, ever so much as breathed a word about cutting the budgets for fire, EMS, or police. 

Also in 2012, Talbot County spent 60% less on their county detention facility than Queen Anne's County did; I wonder if the warden of the Queen Anne's County jail in Centreville could afford a 60% reduction in manpower?

Queen Anne's County spends ten million dollars a year more on education than Talbot does, proof positive that more kids in school equals bigger government budgets and higher taxes. But fewer kids isn't the only reason for the lower cost of education, because while Talbot offers new teachers comparatively high salaries, as teachers gain experience and tenure, they find that their salaries do not keep up with other counties across the state. This means that the longer a teacher works in Talbot County, the less he/she will make comparatively over time. 

In 2012, Queen Anne's County had more than twice the budget for roads maintenance as Talbot County, and any of the five Queen Anne's Commissioners would tell you that is still a woefully inadequate sum. In fact, Queen Anne's County has stopped removing roadkill from the side of the roads, so insufficient is our budget.  Sticking with public works, Talbot spent only 25% of the Queen Anne's County budget for solid waste; and yet people have complained to no end that our county transfer stations are not open frequently enough, imagine if they were closed 75% more of the time than they already are! People would wind up dumping their trash on the roads, but there would be no road maintenance to clean it up.

So as you can see, the case for Talbot's low taxes is quite clear, and it has virtually nothing to do with Big Box retail, or even revenue of any kind. As a very well placed contact in Talbot County told me during the research for this piece, "the impact of Big Box retail on Talbot County's budget and taxes is marginal." To imply that Queen Anne's County, by attempting to attract Big Box development, could somehow replicate Talbot County's tax rates is a baldfaced lie. It is a bastardization of the truth that deserves ridicule, because it seeks to misinform the public for the benefit of a few very interested stakeholders.

What the story of Talbot County actually tells us, is that if we want to have the lowest tax rate in the state, we should kick 10,000 people out, and reduce by nearly half the level of all our government services.

The math just doesn't add up; join me in voting NO on Question B in Queen Anne's County.

Notes on sources:
-Even with a tax increase in 2012, Queen Anne's County still has the fifth lowest tax rate of any county in the state of Maryland. You can see data for all counties here.      

-People like to talk about the lack of good paying jobs in Queen Anne's County, but as it turns out, Talbot County pays its county employees less across the board, and often much less, than does Queen Anne's. You can see salary data compiled by MACO here.

-You can see the Talbot County budget here.

-and the Queen Anne's County budget here.



Anonymous said...

For some one that sat on the board, The department of emergency service has been cut numerous time over the past 6 years, if you call an ambulance in Trappe you won't really wait there are more paramedic units in talbot than in Queen anne. Queen anne has 4 transport units and on a good day 2 supervisor chase cars. Talbot has 5 transport units and one is stationed in Trappe. Maybe you should do better research. Did you know Queen Anne's has the lowest tax income from commercial tax base in the state?

Steve Kline said...

More does not mean better or quicker; unless you can show that response times in Talbot County are lower than in QAC, I stand by my remark. Everything else in this piece is unassailable, taken right from the budgets of the two counties. The point of this article was to highlight the enormous fallacy that says if we have Big Box in Queen Anne's County, we can have taxes as low as Talbot.

Anonymous said...

Big Boxes sure didn't help Easton much. Their tax rate is 0.52 vs 0.38 for Centreville.