At the Washington Post, Rachel Chason reports on how the Washington, D.C. suburb of Seat Pleasant, Md. has just levied an eight-fold tax hike on five local businesses, with one seeing its $5,991 tax bill jump to $55,019. Several of the owners are suing, but the town says it went through the proper procedures needed to adopt a special tax, which is supposed to be predicated on the provision of amenities such as sidewalk improvements that are of special benefit to the taxed properties. One business owner says he and others didn’t learn about a hearing on the measure until it was too late.
Whoever wins in the court challenge, the episode symbolizes a wider problem. Specialists in local and state government policy are full of ideas for business-by-business and location-by-location tinkering with tax rates, both downward (as part of incentive packages to lure relocating businesses) and upward (to finance special public services provided in some zones, such as downtown revitalization). But there is a distinct value in terms of both public legitimacy and the rule of law in having uniform and consistent taxation that does not depend on whether a property owner or business is on the ins or on the outs with the tax-setting authorities. It is not necessarily wrong for your tax bill to vary based on services rendered—but it should not vary based on political clout.