Lower tax for subsidized-home buyers backed

Maryland Votes 2006

June 18, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

An idea to lower the property tax burden for buyers of subsidized homes in Howard County has support from several candidates for county executive and the County Council.

The proposal, backed by the Association of Community Services (ASC), an umbrella group of 150 social service and health agencies, would have homebuyers under the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program pay property taxes on just the portion of the house that they own - typically 51 percent to 60 percent. The county Housing Commission owns the rest.

Buyers now pay taxes on the full market price of the house, a heavy burden in Howard's high-price real estate market.

A recently sold home in the program included a monthly mortgage of $1,448, plus real estate taxes of $375 a month, according to county housing officials. The change could cut that tax bill nearly in half.

"I think it's a great idea," Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive, said at a candidates forum on human services last week in Columbia.

Ulman also said he would like to find a way to cut condominium fees for moderate-income buyers.

Those fees can easily top $300 a month, said Roy Appletree, president of ACS.

"There's got to be a way to work through that," Ulman told an audience of about 75 people.

Appletree said the tax reduction "is very doable."

"It seems fair," he said. "If the county owns 49 percent of the property, why pass that tax over to the person who owns 51 percent?"

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican candidate for county executive, said after the meeting that he would have to study the issue.

"Property taxes are to pay for services," he said. "We have to pay for our services somehow."

He also stressed his support in a housing bill approved by the council June 5 for allowing lower-income people to qualify for moderate-income housing.

But others, including independent executive candidate C. Stephen Wallis, Republican council candidates Tony Salazar and Gina Ellrich and Democratic council candidates such as Mary Kay Sigaty and Joshua Feldmark, said they support the concept.

"It seems fair to me for us to support such an initiative," Wallis said.

Because of the financial pressure from taxes, condominium fees and high prices in new developments, builders won the ability in the June 5 council bill to move moderate income units away from their primary developments - something housing advocates worry will produce economically segregated communities.

"What we don't want to have happen is all of the [moderate] housing be put in a certain area," said Anne Towne, director of ACS. "We really want everyone living together."

Ulman also used the friendly Columbia audience to criticize Merdon's opposition to transferring $250,000 in the fiscal 2007 budget to help with eviction prevention and energy-cost relief.

"There is a clear difference in philosophy" between himself and Merdon, Ulman told the group.

Merdon not only opposed County Executive James N. Robey's move last month to shift money from a contingency fund to eviction prevention to combat pressures from rising rents and energy costs, but he opposed a similar move several years ago, Ulman said.

"In both of these instances, Mr. Merdon voted against that funding," Ulman said. "I will continue to be a strong advocate for human services."

Merdon did not answer the jabs, though he said last month that his objection was to lowering the contingency fund rather than the purpose of the move.

The session Wednesday morning at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center was the second candidates forum last week, and 14 people running for county executive and council did their best to convince the coalition of groups that help the needy that they would have a sympathetic ear if elected.

"I've walked the walk in terms of human services," said Salazar, who is running in the council in District 1, covering Ellicott City and Elkridge. He described his work over the years with children, in programs directed at Spanish speakers, and in foster care.

"Your priorities are my priorities," said Democrat Jennifer Terrasa, running for County Council in District 3, covering the southeastern county.

Harry M. Dunbar, a Democrat running for executive, talked about his year with Volunteers In Service To America in East Harlem, N.Y., in the early 1960s, and Wallis described his work with non-English-speaking children in his job as a school principal.

Merdon also appeared sympathetic to the needs of the poor in the county. "It's government's role to help those who can't help themselves," he told the group.

Howard County needs mass transit to forge stronger links to Baltimore, Washington and Fort Meade, he said, and more affordable housing such as Waverly Gardens, an environmentally "green," 102-unit apartment house for moderate-income seniors in upscale Waverly Woods in western Ellicott City.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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