EASTON — Talbot County lawmakers are seeking to raise taxes on residents through ballot initiatives this election cycle, and county public safety officials are pushing voters to get on board with a potential tax increase.
The county has the lowest property tax rate in Maryland, with a tax cap of no more than 2% or the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers (CPI-U) of the previous calendar year if it’s lower. Lawmakers say the cap regularly leaves the county strapped for funds.
The Talbot County Council has taken to the November 2020 ballot with the hope of gaining voter support for a temporary tax increase of up to 1 cent per one hundred dollars of assessed value. “Question D” on the ballot states that the 1-cent hike only would be in effect for 5 years.
Council Member Laura Price has said during previous council meetings that, if given the ability to hike taxes by 1 cent, the change doesn’t mean the council has to implement the increase for 5 years or at all — only that the ability exists for the council to do so.
County Emergency Services Director Clay Stamp, in a Facebook plea to the community, wrote that voting “yes” on the tax increase would allow the county to address “critical needs” in its emergency and public safety service sectors.
Stamp listed competitive wages and benefits, including reasonable retirement benefits, for public safety workers; an expansion of emergency medical services; and needed resources for the sheriff’s office and volunteer fire companies among the initiatives the additional tax revenue would be able to help fund.
“We must be able to recruit and retain a high-caliber workforce in a very competitive environment,” Stamp wrote in a Facebook post Sunday, Oct. 11. “To continue to stay on the cutting edge of a rapidly changing field, we also must be able to acquire and maintain sophisticated advanced technology, such as emergency life support equipment.
“We must be able to expand our emergency medical response capability if we are to continue to reduce response times and thus improve outcomes for life threatening emergencies,” he said.
Talbot Sheriff Joe Gamble also has voiced concerns for his office’s ability to operate and retain qualified deputies. “There’s very little fat in county government,” Gamble said. “We really struggle financially in the county with our property tax structure the way it is right now.”
The sheriff said Talbot County is losing skilled law enforcement personnel to neighboring counties, such as Queen Anne’s and Anne Arundel, which offer more pay, and better benefits and retirement packages. Being able to retain deputies and pay them enough so they can afford to live in-county, Gamble said, would improve policing in the county because the deputies would “become part of the fabric of the community.”
Council Member Pete Lesher during a July 21 council meeting pleaded with the public to approve the 1-cent tax increase on the ballot this year. “We have some real funding issues in this county,” Lesher said.
“If we want to be able to afford advanced life support ambulance service to all corners of this county ... If you care about public safety, if you care about retaining sheriff’s deputies, if you care about getting an ambulance to your mother or your grandfather ... this is vitally important,” he said. “I don’t know that this [tax increase] is enough, but it is something, and that’s really important.”
The tax cap dilemma has been such for many years, and despite pleas from lawmakers and others, many residents still vehemently oppose a tax increase — especially now, at a time of economic struggle for thousands of jobless and partly-employed individuals across the county amid the coronavirus pandemic.
To illustrate their dislike for the proposed hike, voters created a Twitter account in August named, “Taxing Talbot County — NO on Ballot Question ‘D!’” The account operator(s) argues in tweets that raising taxes in the county would kill businesses, and urges voters to “wake up.”
“If they get their way, taxes will rise for 5 years,” one video posted by the account says.
But Lesher said the council has shown through previous restraint that it can be trusted with its taxing power.
“The public knows this council and trusts this council to exercise discretion with its taxing power over property taxes in this county,” Lesher said. “It is absolutely important that we give the council this authority.”
Council President Corey Pack said the council isn’t trying to “hold anybody up” by raising taxes. “These are very real concerns,” Pack said.
“These things have to occur when you don’t have the revenue to build your sheriff’s department, your health department and to build your additional substation for your emergency services,” he said to the public during a July 21 meeting. “These are to support you — not us, but you.
“This is your opportunity as citizens to say, ‘I want to contribute to my future,’ Pack continued.
Talbot County’s early voting center is the Easton Volunteer Fire Department’s Bingo Hall at 315 Aurora Park Drive. The early vote center is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 26 through Nov. 2. Four vote centers will be open on election day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.: The Easton Volunteer Fire Department, Easton High School, St. Michael’s High School and Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Company.
Voters can go to any of the vote centers to cast their ballot but should expect that there will be lines because of the necessary distancing protocols and sanitizing that will take place after each voter, according to Talbot Elections Director Jeri Cook. Cook said masks will be required in the polling room.