Laurel Leader, 18 Oct 2007 (Glenn).
Residents at Laurel's upscale Central Parke at Victoria Falls community have vowed to overturn a special tax approved by Prince George's County for their development, claiming they were not aware of the tax until they received their first bills in July.
More than 300 outraged residents showed up for a standing-room-only meeting at the Contee Road development's community center Oct. 9 to voice their opposition to the special tax bills, which ranged from $1,100 to nearly $1,600.
"The county sees us a cash cow and are trying to milk us, but we will put a stop to this," said Stan Okumura, president of the Political Interface Committee, formed by the residents in response to the tax. "There is a place for this (special tax assessments), but not for senior citizens."
Victoria Falls is a 55-and-older residential community that, when completed, will consist of 609 homes. Its condominiums, villas and single-family residences range from the mid $200,000s to the low $500,000s.
In 2005, the Prince George's County Council approved legislation that created a special tax district for Victoria Falls, at the request of County Executive Jack Johnson. This allowed the county to issue $12 million in bonds for the developer of the complex, Slenker Communities, to use for public infrastructure, such as sewer, water, streets, curbs and gutters.
In a June 23, 2005 letter to the County Council urging members to favorably and expeditiously review the legislation creating the tax district, Johnson said the bonds would ensure that the project would be "first- rate."
He added: "This legislation reflects my Administration's strong commitment to building strong, viable and dynamic public/private partnerships."
But Victoria Falls residents say they did not know they would end up footing the bill for that partnership, a bill that can increase by up to two percent each year over the next 30 years.
"I was misled," said resident Nathanel Pollard. "The first time I knew anything about it was when I got the bill. ... I think it's fraud. I've dealt with special tax districts and you have to spell that out at the time of purchase."
Slenker Communities President Bill Slenker said residents were informed they were purchasing property in a special tax district.
Slenker added that residents did not receive tax bills from the county until this year because the taxes were paid through the bond funds for the first two years.
He also has said that 100 percent of the bond funds were used on public infrastructure needs in the community. The funds, Slenker added, allowed him to build Victoria Falls' private facilities in the early stages of the project, with company funds, and resulted in lower home prices.
During the meeting, residents questioned the need for the bond, since the developer was responsible for building the community's public infrastructure projects anyway.
"The developer got a gift from the Prince George's County Council, a $12 million back door gift, and we're here to repay the tax bill of that gift," said Frank White, a resident and committee member.
Some residents called for County Council member Thomas Dernoga, who represents the Laurel area, to work to rescind the tax, noting that he introduced Johnson's bill.
But Dernoga said he only did so after the legislation was submitted by Johnson and unanimously approved by a council committee.
"Since this property is in District 1 (Dernoga's district), it was up to me to introduce it and I did," Dernoga said in an e-mail message.
Johnson was not available for comment, but spokesman James Keary, while declining to comment on Johnson's justification for supporting the legislation, defended it.
"We proposed it to the County Council and they accepted it," Keary said. "The council has rejected things in the past that we've asked for, but the tax was supposed to be properly disclosed to people."
Pressure on Dernoga
Sam Rosenzweig, a retired air traffic control manager, said at last week's meeting that Dernoga, at a previous community meeting, admitted to making a "mistake" in supporting the legislation, an assertion supported by other Victoria Falls residents.
"Let's get him to pass an amendment and fix this," Rosenzweig said. "We're seniors on fixed incomes and when they passed that special tax district, it went counter to what is being done nationally to give tax breaks to seniors."
Dernoga did not respond to a request to comment on the suggestion that he considers the legislation a mistake, but he has requested an investigation by the county's Audits and Investigations Office to determine whether any bond funds were spent improperly, as some residents have charged. Until that investigation is completed, Dernoga said in his e-mail response, "It is not appropriate to comment."
Victoria Falls is not the only Prince George's community where a special tax district has caused a stir.
Residents of Dunbar Hills, a 55- and-older community off of Lottsford Road west of Bowie, also are upset over their special tax district, saying they were not aware of it until they received bills.
County Council member David Harrington, whose district includes Dunbar Hills, introduced a bill Oct. 9 that will require developers and sellers to inform buyers of special tax assessments through brochures and signed documents.
"The only obligation the builder has now is in the closing stage and I'm trying to do something way before that in the sales process," Harrington said. "At closing, you're bombarded with papers and could easily miss it."
By the end of the Victoria Falls meeting, residents had donated more than $5,200 to hire an attorney to research their rights on the case. If all else fails, they said, they will file a lawsuit.
"We're not people in walkers, but engineers, scientists and smart government people who are highly accomplished and trained not to sit back and accept what we're told," said resident Arthur Chausmer, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. "We want them to rescind this tax and I'm optimistic that we'll make it happen."
E-mail Gwendolyn Glenn at email@example.com