The news sometimes makes me laugh. I had one of
those moments this week, reading Councilmember Vincent Orange’s
response to the Washington Post stories and editorials about
secrecy in exploratory campaign committees (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A54736-2005Feb25.html).
Orange misses the point spectacularly by protesting that he’s
following the current law by keeping secret his exploratory campaign
contributors and the amount that they give him. That’s true, but
irrelevant. If a politician has to keep his contributors’ names
secret, the voters are entitled to conclude that it would be
embarrassing, at best, to reveal who’s bankrolling him.
Status of Tax Assessment Class Action Suit
Peter S. Craig, email@example.com
We are still awaiting a decision by Judge Eugene Hamilton in the
class action case, filed in 2002, contesting assessments for tax years
2002 and 2003. The class action is captioned Peter S. Craig, et al.,
vs. District of Columbia, et al., DC Superior Court, Tax Docket No.
8112-02. A similar petition, filed by Gilbert Hahn was consolidated with
the Craig case. After about a year’s delay, occasioned by over twenty
dilatory motions filed by the District (all of which were ultimately
denied) and extensive discovery, cross motions for summary judgment were
filed in the spring of 2004 and oral argument was held last summer.
Judge Hamilton has already ruled orally in our favor on the
Constitutional due process arguments, holding that the notices issued by
OTR did not adequately inform taxpayers of the basis of their
assessments. He ruled that the District should comply with the
requirements of the DC Code, Section 47-824(a), which mandate that
notices of assessment show -- 1) the current and proposed assessments
for land and improvements separately, 2) the amount and percentage of
change, 3) an indication of the reason for such change, 4) a statement
of the appeal procedures, 5) the citation to the regulation or orders
under which the property was assessed, 6) the location of the assessment
roll and the hours during which this information is available, and 7) an
explanation of the special benefits, incentives, limitations, or credits
which relate to real property taxes.
Other issues in the class action case await the judge’s decision.
Among the petitioners’ contentions are: 1) that the practice of OTR in
dividing the city into different neighborhoods and subneighborhoods and
secretly adopting different rules for each is unlawful; 2) that the
practice of OTR in equating gross sales prices to estimated market value
is erroneous, because under the statute "estimated market
value" is defined as the money a seller would receive from a buyer
for the transfer of real property on the valuation date (January 1) and
does not include personal property (washer, dryer, stove, refrigerator,
etc.), seller subsidy at closing, fix-up costs for the sale, agents’
commissions, closing costs and transfer tax. The relevant number is what
the seller would receive, after closing and payment of all selling
costs, for the real property if sold on the valuation date; 3) that the
practice of OTR in using across-the-board multipliers for assessments in
TY 2002 and TY 2003 is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection
clause of the Constitution because it exacerbates preexisting
discrimination; 4) that the failure of OTR to reassess properties when
building permits are issued violates DC law and further aggravates
discrimination within neighborhoods; 5) that the practice of OTR in
using across-the-board multipliers for land valuation, based solely on
square footage, is unlawful and further aggravates discrimination within
neighborhoods, by ignoring other factors affecting land value, such as
presence or absence of traffic or other deleterious factors; differences
in terrain and view, drainage, site improvements, etc.; and 6) that the
practice of OTR in assessing condominiums based solely on the square
footage of floor space within the building is unlawfully discriminatory
in that it ignores other factors such as condition of the unit, its view
and exposure, presence or absence of balconies, etc.
All efforts to secure a settlement with OTR have failed. The wait for
a court decision continues.
Property Tax Assessments
Ed Lazere, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, firstname.lastname@example.org
Property assessments are on the rise for many DC homeowners. And
already the debate on how to address this issue is getting vitriolic. I
hope that this year we can all take a deep breath and discuss it
rationally and in a civil manner. In my opinion, property tax relief is
needed this year -- but it should be focused largely on people who are
facing the greatest difficulties paying the higher tax bills that come
with higher assessments. As we debate property tax relief, it’s
important to remember that owning a home has its advantages.
1) Only 40 percent of DC households are homeowners. Most of the 60
percent who rent cannot afford to buy a house. 2) As a homeowner, the
largest chunk of your housing costs -- your mortgage -- is fixed, and it
may even have gone down if you refinanced. Most renters cannot say that.
3) Rising home assessments are a sign that your property wealth has
grown. Would you rather have stagnant home values? Would you rather be a
renter and left out of the game entirely?
DC provides a 50 percent property tax break to senior homeowners
below $100,000 in income. That is something the suburbs do not provide.
Last year, DC also implemented a 5 percent tax cap for those under about
$43,000 for a family of four who have owned homes for seven years or
more. In addition, caps provide benefits in weird ways and to people who
may not need relief. Consider this. A home that rose in value from
$300,000 to $400,000 over the last three years would pay less in tax
under a 5 percent cap than another home that rose from $350,000 to
$400,000, even thought their value is now the same. Also, two identical
homes sitting side by side could have vastly different tax burdens under
a cap if the homes were bought just a few years apart. That does not
Finally, a tax cap provides relief regardless of income, including
the wealthiest DC households who probably can afford their tax bill. The
DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that 38 percent of the benefit of the
current cap goes to homes worth $500,000 or more. As a result of the
cap, effective tax rates — tax as a percentage of home value — tend
to be lowest for the highest-value DC homes. Again that does not make
Consider a few other tidbits:
1) DC enacted property tax relief for low-income households in the
late 1970s -- known as Schedule H, with a maximum credit of $750 and
income eligibility of $20,000. Twenty-five years later, the maximum
credit is still $750 and income eligibility is still $20,000, despite
massive inflation. Shouldn’t we fix that before anything else? 2)
Virginia has no property tax cap but has had the same kinds of
assessment increases we have. Fairfax County has not imploded under this
burden. Instead, they have cut their tax rate.
In the end, some property tax relief makes sense, but a few
principles should apply. Two homes worth the same amount generally
should be subject to the same tax. Tax relief then can be provided for
lower-income residents who really struggle to meet all of their bills,
including tax bills. How do we do that? First, we should fix the
Schedule H credit for low-income households. Second, any relief for
other homeowners should be equally applied, by lowering the rate or
increasing the homestead deduction, or both. I look forward to a healthy
and respectful debate.
A Taxing Situation
Mark Eckenwiler, themale at ingot dot org
In the last issue [themail, February 23], Wendy Blair complained that
DC treats refunds of overpaid taxes as income the following year. I
believe she has overstated the case.
In both the DC and federal tax system, refunds are not treated as
income unless you claimed an itemized deduction for the year in which
you overpaid those taxes. In such cases, since the deduction claimed was
in fact too large (by exactly the amount of the refund), it’s
perfectly fair to treat the refund as income the following year.
Otherwise, people could game the system by wildly overpaying taxes in
Year 1 — thereby reducing the amount of income subject to tax — and
then keep the subsequent refund, instead of paying the correct amount of
tax on actual income.
Ex Poste Facto
S.E. Reuter, email@example.com
Regards the Blair item for DC income tax — wouldn’t a law passed
in 2005 creating a penalty for actions in 2004 be an example of
unconstitutional ex poste facto action?
Journalism as an Interactive Medium
Phil Shapiro, firstname.lastname@example.org
In a few prior postings I’ve pointed out how journalism is becoming
more of an interactive medium. Mark Trahant, the editorial page editor
of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, sees this same trend in his
editorial, "Journalism as an interactive medium." (See http://shorterlink.com/?DE5C35.)
As a first step towards this, online editorials from the Seattle Post
Intelligencer will now have a poll at the end of each editorial —
to better gauge the vox populi (the voice of the public.) Is
there any hope of DC-area newspapers becoming intelligencer? Maybe we’re
stuck with the less intelligencer newspapers here in this town?
Recent posts about the designs for the stadium remind me that before
the vote, a group of greenies made various recommendations to reduce the
impact of the beast. It is vital those recommendations be incorporated.
For example, the location of the thing is literally next door to our
main sewage pumping station. Now, with as little as an inch of rain,
millions of gallons of sewage are pumped into the Anacostia. Upgrades
are on the way, but seventh inning flushes, especially during or after a
summer thunderstorm, could easily create havoc within the system and
disaster for the river. Without major league water conservation
measures, the stadium could be a shutout for Anacostia water quality.
My advice for VoIP is try before you buy. Definitely don’t switch
over you main phone number right away -- just get a new number for
testing it out. Most companies offer a trial period. Take advantage of
it. You’ll be surprised how little tolerance you will have for tiny
glitches in phone service. We may gripe about Verizon, but there’s a
lot to be said for a dial tone every time you pick up the phone, and a
perfect connection every single time.
I have a VoIP line now as a second line. The service itself works
extraordinarily well, when it works. The audio quality is better than a
regular phone and the price and features can’t be beat. However, the
quality of the call depends entirely on your Internet connection. You
need guaranteed bandwidth and low latency in both directions. This means
if your kid likes to do a lot of P2P file sharing, or play games on the
Internet, or you download a big file while you’re on the phone,
service will suffer and it will be unusable. Even a tiny hiccup every
few seconds will drive you crazy on a phone call, and if your bandwidth
gets maxed out while you’re on the phone, you will get many hiccups.
Or if your Internet service isn’t always fast for you — e.g., some
DSL and cable customers experience slowdowns in the evening, when lots
of people are online at the same time — you won’t get good service
from the phone no matter what during those times.
If the problem is just your own bandwidth usage competing with the
phone, then there are technical solutions to this problem, known as QoS
or bandwidth management, that can give your VoIP device priority within
I just switched to SunRocket VoIP (http://www.sunrocket.com)
and I am very pleased with it so far. They send you the hardware (free,
no shipping) and it took me about a week to get it; I plugged it in, set
it up and was making calls in five minutes. So far the call quality has
been excellent — as good as regular POTS or better. No dropped calls,
The plan I signed up for is $199 per year — unlimited US calling
and two numbers — but they also have a monthly plan. And if you sign
up by March 15, they’ll throw in a free cordless phone (search
broadbandreports.com for the promo code).
I did a lot of research before taking the plunge, and from what
others seem to think, SunRocket appears to be among the better companies
for service quality, customer service, etc. If you’re curious, I think
the Broadband Reports forums are the best source of info: http://www.broadbandreports.com/forum/voip,
I started with Vonage (http://www.vonage.com).
I terminated after about five months and am now with SunRocket (www.sunrocket.com).
I found Vonage to be unresponsive and inaccessible, especially when
dealing with technical issues. When I needed to call 911 from my Vonage
VoIP, it didn’t work although I had assiduously set up the 911 service
with them and had a confirmation that they had entered me into their 911
database. I also found the quality of the connection lacking at times,
and on a regular basis, I would pick up the phone and have no dial tone.
On the other hand, SunRocket has been a delight to work with. When I
have had questions or minor technical problems they were easy to contact
and have been quite responsive. They are still working on some minor
technical problems, but these do not really affect the quality of the
service. Once they are resolved, I will be 100 percent satisfied (right
now I am at about 98 percent). In addition to my primary number with
them, they provide a “signature” line (a second number that rings a
little differently). SunRocket is actually cheaper than Vonage, and when
I signed up I got a new phone system from them (which may have been a
promotional offer, so I don’t know whether it is still available).
Go to Epinions.com and read about Vonage customer service. It seems
if it works right the first time everything is swell. However, if you
have problems, then you might have some trouble getting them resolved. I
myself am about to go to Lingo.
Elizabeth Wulkan, email@example.com
A potential problem with Vonage occurred to me: if you have a
security system in your home you will need at least one hardwired
telephone in your home. The system uses that technology to get through
to you and to the police/fire department. At least Security Link works
VoIP, unlike a regular land line, leaves you without phone service in
the event of a power failure. Fire and EMS agencies recommend against
relying exclusively on VoIP — or, for that matter, cordless phones
with electric base stations.
VoIP service is still in its nascent stage. Quality of service is a
factor of Internet connection and speed. If your computer or Internet
goes down, so does your phone service. Voice quality is still
questionable. Because the service is mostly unregulated by the
government, there is no requirement that VoIP providers connect you to
emergency 911 services, if necessary. Some local phone companies
throughout the country are trying to block customers from receiving VoIP
calls. Your choice is to be a pioneer and experience the risk or wait
until broader deployment of the technology.
I just got Vonage installed in my home office. I’m very pleased and
certainly I’m saving a few bucks. Some hiccups though. I ordered it in
October and it took about a month to get Verizon to “transition” my
number to Vonage. I also needed a new DSL service, which still requires
a phone line.
With Vonage I was able to eliminate one of the two lines I had coming
into the house. No more static on my calls but, because audio is broken
down into ones and zeros, there’s a different kind of hassle –
occasionally snippets of words dropped. I notice it more on
long-duration calls. Hardly a deal breaker and I’ve not paid any long
distance on North America. In case my power goes down, I have a handy
ordinary phone standing by to plug into the wall.
Suggestion: check out this week’s City Paper for the article
on the DC’s Hyde Leadership School rugby team (Search back issues: for
“The Real All Blacks”). The athletic director for this school just
east of North Capitol Street has created something really special for
kids who ordinarily wouldn’t have many opportunities. I coach a
competing team and it’s been wonderful watching these kids learn a new
sport. If anyone’s company is looking for a really great cause, this
There’s a free VoIP program [http://www.skype.com]
for computers that lets you call anyone who has the Scype program loaded
(anywhere in the world) -- free. If you call someone’s land line phone
the charge is five cents per minute. All you need is a microphone on
your computer. I use i-Chat on my computer with a web cam to see and
chat, real time, with grand kids all around the country. You do need a
broadband connection for Scype and/or a web cam.
The following link is of a VoIP success story from a regional bank
from the west coast. http://whitepapers.silicon.com/0,39024759,60087222p-39000487q,00.htm.
[Advice from the FCC on VoIP, http://www.fcc.gov/voip/:]
“What Are Some Advantages of Internet Voice? Because Internet Voice is
digital, it may offer features and services that are not available with
a traditional phone. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you
need not maintain and pay the additional cost for a line just to make
telephone calls. With many Internet Voice plans you can talk for as long
as you want with any person in the world (the requirement is that the
other person has an Internet connection). You can also talk with many
people at the same time without any additional cost.
“What Are Some disadvantages of Internet Voice? If you’re
considering replacing your traditional telephone service with Internet
Voice, there are some possible differences: Some Internet Voice services
don’t work during power outages and the service provider may not offer
backup power; It may be difficult for some Internet Voice services to
seamlessly connect with the 911 dispatch center or identify the location
of Internet Voice 911 callers; or They may or may not offer white page
Also see advice on VoIP for enterprises from Intertangent: http://www.intertangent.com/023346/Articles_and_News/1409.html.
CLASSIFIEDS — EVENTS
AARP Legislative Forum, March 4
Tony Copeland, firstname.lastname@example.org
On Friday, March 4, from 1-3:00 p.m., AARP DC will hold its first
legislative forum of 2005 at the Chevy Chase Community Center, 5601
Connecticut Avenue, NW (corner of Connecticut and McKinley Street --
free parking). Nearly 200 older District residents are expected to turn
out for the event and get a better understanding of the debate on Social
Security, affordable prescription drugs, and other issues. AARP DC
Director Mimi Castaldi, WTOP’s Mark Plotkin and NewsChannel 8’s
Bruce DePuyt will participate in a panel discussion of how Congress, the
White House and the District Council will impact policies of importance
to older people.
National Building Museum Events, March 6
Brie Hensold, email@example.com
Both events at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW,
Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line.
Sunday, March 6, 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Flying in the Great Hall: learn
about model airplanes as members of the DC Maxecuters fly their planes
in the Museum’s Great Hall. Watch rubber band-powered free-flight
model airplanes soar in a series of launches throughout the day. Free.
All ages. Drop-in program.
Sunday, March 6, 1:00-3:30 p.m. Be inspired by the different airplane
models flown in the Great Hall. Families create simple mobiles with
“airplanes” and decorate them with different materials. $3 per
project. All ages. Drop-in program.
Cleveland Park Citizens Association Meeting,
George Idelson, firstname.lastname@example.org
All are welcome to the monthly public meeting of the Cleveland Park
Citizens Association, Monday, March 7, 6:30 p.m., at the Cleveland Park
Library, Connecticut Avenue and Newark Street, NW. Electric rate sticker
shock: what is the current situation; who is going to own our power
plants; will green power be part of the picture?
The Mirant Corporation, which generates power for the city, is now in
bankruptcy. Fixed-price contracts that have benefited consumers are now
in question. Pepco, which distributes the power, might have to buy
energy in the open market. When People’s Counsel Elizabeth Noël sued
to retain the old price structure, Mirant counter sued. Why don’t we
have municipal aggregation? What about “green energy”? Why does it
cost more than other energy? What about bio-mass? Could we really turn
garbage into electricity? Come early. Bring your best questions for
Public Service Commissioner Rick Morgan and People’s Counsel Elizabeth
Noel. Also a Tregaron update with Bonnie Lepard, President of Friends of
Tregaron, who will report on new developments following the February
24th hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board. CPCA members
also will be asked to ratify a recent Executive Committee resolution
opposing any development at Tregaron. For more information, contact the
Cleveland Park Citizens Association, 362-4279, clevelandparkisus.org.
Washington Storytellers Theater presents the SpeakEasy open mic,
Sneaks, Snitches & Scoundrels: Stories about Getting Into Trouble,
at the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, 1610 14th
Street NW (between Corcoran and Q Streets) on Tuesday, March 8, 8:00
p.m. Ticket price $5 (corkage: $3 per person). Purchase at the door
(doors open at 7:30 p.m.). Street parking. Metro Red Line (Dupont) or
Green Line (U Street/Cardoza). On the first of each month, we will begin
taking sign-ups for that month’s open mic. Call the WST Office to
reserve a space.
We’ve all gotten into trouble at one point or another in our lives
. . . even the most goody-goody among us is rarely as pure as they seem.
Well, it’s time to open up the closet on those dirty little secrets
and proudly display your mischief-making for all the world to see. Own
your trouble-making at this month’s SpeakEasy with featured
storytellers Loren Niemi, Ellouise Schoettler, and Jon Spelman.
CLASSIFIEDS — FOR SALE
NordicTrak Exercise Machine for Sale
Phil Greene, email@example.com
Like new NordicTrak Pro model, which has wheels on the bottom for
easy moving, and is adjustable for elevation. Also includes a pulse
monitor and speed computer. $150
I’m still seeking a good used, sit-in, beginner’s kayak. If
anyone has a kayak for sale, please let me know.
CLASSIFIEDS — HOUSING
Beach House Mates Wanted
Alan Henney, Alan@henney.com
Seeking DC professionals to rent a large group house in Rehoboth
Beach, Delaware, for summer. Excellent location, plenty of parking with
lots of room.
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