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St. Mary’s County Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R), serving his third consecutive term, cannot run for re-election next year. With that in mind, he said at a Monday budget meeting, he would like to offer some tax relief before he leaves office.

Jarboe said he was interested in lowering the local property tax cap for senior citizens from age 70 to 65. An effort earlier this year did not pass. He suggested lowering the homestead cap on how much property tax bills can increase each year from 5 percent to 2.5 percent to protect from rising assessments experienced in years past.

He also suggested doing away with the county’s energy tax, which is 1.25 percent on electric and home heating fuel bills.

Jarboe asked county finance staff what impact those proposals would have on the operating budget.

The energy tax began in 1989 as a way to bring in more money to St. Mary’s, before Department of Defense decisions brought about 5,250 new jobs to Patuxent River Naval Air Station during the 1990s.

The original rate of the energy tax was 5 percent, later reduced to 2.25 percent to the current rate of 1.25 percent. In 2009, Daniel H. Raley, former county commissioner, tried to eliminate the tax altogether in his last term.

“If we put [the tax relief proposals] on the table early for review, it’s good to have those numbers,” Jarboe said Monday. With the large fund balances county government has been carrying each year, “it’ll be better to give them back to the taxpayers,” he said.

The commissioners have used surplus dollars to fund future benefits for retirees and pledged $9.9 million to go toward an expedited renovation of Spring Ridge Middle School.

Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) said she would want to know how many households would qualify if the senior property tax cap age were changed to 65. “I want to look at the implications a couple decades into the future before we tinker with something that isn’t broken,” she said.

Commissioner Dan Morris (R) again supported lowering the age. “I think it is broken. I think we need to encourage seniors to retire in St. Mary’s County,” he said.

In other budget discussions, Morris said the installation of new radio towers should be expedited to upgrade the communications system for emergency first responders.

Currently, the county plans to spend $5.6 million in fiscal 2015 and another $5.4 million in fiscal 2018 to finish the new towers. Morris’ suggestion would be to move that funding from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2016.

There are six tower sites across St. Mary’s with another seven planned.

“The sooner we get that done, the better,” Morris said. “We need to get the towers in place now” to reach 95 percent coverage for portable radios across the county.

Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said he was interested in adding more street lights along Great Mills Road from the area of Taylor Gas down to Great Mills High School using some $60,000 “to promote public safety.”

George Erichsen, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation, said street lights can cost $2,500 each. “It’s not a cheap thing to do,” he said.

The commissioners will revisit the county’s building budget plans in February. The capital budget is $41 million this year, with $25.5 million for public schools, and set at $49 million next year so far.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) said, “I’m not going to go out on a limb and pitch a big project.”

jbabcock@somdnews.com