Fate of bill to give seniors tax discount is uncertain

Bates amends legislation

vote on measure delayed

Howard County

February 10, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Robey administration's bid to create a Howard County Revenue Authority moved closer to reality yesterday in Annapolis, but another local bill to give senior citizens a break on property taxes faces an uncertain future.

The tax bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, amended it to raise the age of eligibility to 65 and limit the amount of tax relief - both designed to cut costs. With the changes, Bates estimated the county might lose up to $2.2 million annually, but Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the cost might be closer to $6 million.

The original bill would forgive half the property tax bill for seniors 60 and older.

In addition to raising the minimum age, Bates' amendments would limit the tax relief to 30 percent off for seniors who have lived in the same house for at least 20 years, 40 percent off for people in their homes 25 years, and a 50 percent discount for those in the same residence at least 30 years.

"Many seniors in Howard County like staying in their homes, and they use very few services," Bates said.

Cathy Stefano, a 68-year-old Columbia woman who has lived with her husband in a four-bedroom home in Hickory Ridge for 23 years, said she wants to stay in her house and would welcome the relief. Even with the county's 5 percent annual cap on assessment increases, the bills pile up, she said.

"If I sell my house, I guarantee I'm going to sell to a couple with kids," who would go to county schools and cost taxpayers more than seniors do, she said.

"[The bill] has received a lot of support," Bates said, including letters from residents across the county.

But Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, disagreed, indicating that he was ready to vote against the bill.

"I have not received all these letters from anyone in my district," he said. "If someone has been in their house for 20 years, they are not exactly poor in Howard County. I have a relative who bought a house for $100,000 and recently sold it for $900,000. Many seniors in Howard County have become very wealthy."

A final vote was delayed until next week, after state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat, questioned whether the state could legally give tax breaks to some seniors, but not others.

In discussing the revenue authority, county legislators unanimously backed a series of amendments that were negotiated with County Executive James N. Robey over the past several weeks.

But a vote on the bill was delayed until next week, after state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican, brought up a lengthy new amendment that includes a restriction that would prevent the authority from competing with private businesses. Kittleman has strongly opposed the idea of the county - or an independent revenue authority - buying Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

Robey proposed the authority, an independent quasi-government body able to sell bonds, to enable construction of public facilities such as parking garages without incurring general county debt.

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