Officials looking to cut taxes as delegation kills bill to aid seniors

Legislators also support county revenue authority

Howard County

February 24, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County residents would likely see lower taxes under legislation County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone said he will introduce by mid-April, though he provided no details.

Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, revealed his intentions yesterday to seek targeted and broad tax relief at the county's legislative session in Annapolis, where a bill offering property tax breaks to seniors was defeated.

County Executive James N. Robey said he, too, wants to cut taxes if the county budget will allow it. Robey, a Democrat, is to present his budget proposal in April for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Robey also made the trip to Annapolis, where 10 of the 11 legislators backed his bill that would allow the creation of a county revenue authority.

Bills affecting only Howard County are usually approved by the full General Assembly if the local delegation supports them.

The bill killed yesterday was sponsored by Republican Del. Gail H. Bates. It would have cut property taxes for homeowners over 65 who had lived in the same house for at least 20 years. The measure won support from two of the three county state senators but was killed by the delegates, 5-2, on a party-line vote, with delegation Chairman Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, abstaining.

"The county already has the authority to give property tax relief," said Democratic Del. Shane E. Pendergrass. "I think this bill is not necessary at this time."

Bates said she has proposed the bill the past two sessions, and "interest has been growing and growing. The intent is to keep people in their homes."

Seniors are good for the county, she said, because they use few public services. But medical bills, insurance and food and fuel costs are climbing for seniors on fixed incomes, and if older homeowners move, their homes likely will be bought by families with children who will cost the county thousands of dollars each year to educate.

Still, Quinter objected that Bates' bill would give wealthy seniors relief, and that it takes no account of county budget pressures or its $6 million annual cost, estimated by Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

"It's great to be the candy man at the state level" by voting for lower taxes, while leaving the tough cost-cutting to county officials, Quinter said.

Quinter said he abstained, despite his feelings, as a jab at state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican, who abstained at a meeting Feb. 2 on another unsuccessful Bates bill that would have required the county to slightly reduce the income tax rate.

Guzzone said he has talked about tax relief since the county raised the local income tax rate from the third lowest in Maryland to the top rate allowed by law.

"I'm reasonably confident we will be able to do that," Guzzone said, adding that it has to be done in the context of an annual county budget that considers the county's needs.

Robey has hinted since revenues began to pick up last fall that he would like to lower taxes if the trend continued.

"I'm always cautious," he said. "It all boils down to revenue we have for essential county services."

Bates said she "applauds" the intent of the two Democrats, but added, "I'm not sure they would have done it if I hadn't put this bill in."

A more bipartisan spirit led to the delegation's passage of Robey's revenue authority bill. Everyone except Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican, approved the bill, though Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman said, "I never thought I'd do this," before voting.

Kittleman and Miller said they oppose any government action that could compete with private business, but after the meeting Kittleman said he voted for the authority because "sometimes you just don't have the votes."

"I did the best with this I could do," Kittleman said, referring to a long list of amendments that excluded golf course development and a new government office complex or courthouse from the authority's purview and added financial safeguards. The authority would be able to finance cultural, recreational and parking facilities.

Robey said it could take a year for the County Council to pass legislation to create the authority and get it operating. One of the first projects could be a parking garage in Ellicott City.

After a long debate, the delegation approved another Bates bill asking for $500,000 in state bond money to help plan the garage. She said Ellicott City merchants have pledged to match state funds if it is approved, though no location has been agreed on. Robey said a study of locations would be required.

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