Howard could consider tax cut for seniors

Bill proposes 25 percent drop in property taxes for county residents 70 and older

August 15, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Some of Howard County's oldest homeowners could see the metropolitan area's most generous property tax cut - a reduction of 25 percent for those 70 or older with incomes of under $75,000 a year - if a proposal by two County Council members proves as irresistible this election year as they predict.

The bill, allowed under legislation unanimously approved by the General Assembly this year, goes farther than measures enacted this spring by Baltimore and Carroll counties, which slightly expanded credits offered under the state's homeowner's tax credit program for low-income families.

If approved by the five-member Howard County Council, the proposal unveiled yesterday would freeze the lowered property tax bills for older homeowners until the home is sold.

"It sounds to me like that would be unprecedented in its breadth," said Michael Sanderson, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

The bill would cost the county about $2 million a year, according to the Republican sponsors, council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon and member Charles C. Feaga. But Merdon also said it would save money by delaying turnover of houses that otherwise might bring younger families with school-age children to the county.

"The most important issue for seniors is taxes. It is getting more and more expensive [for seniors] to live and stay in Howard County," Merdon said yesterday as he and Feaga unveiled their idea at the Ellicott City Senior Center.

Council Democrats, while not objecting to the bill in principle, smelled a political motive. Merdon is a candidate for county executive, as is Councilman Ken Ulman, one of three Democrats on the panel.

"I think it's ironic that every piece of legislation we've introduced this year Feaga has called a political stunt; however, I don't care where or when a concept comes from. If it helps people and it's affordable, I'll support it," said Democrat Guy Guzzone.

Ulman said that "it sounds interesting. Clearly, I believe we ought to be helping seniors on a fixed income when we can."

The Democrats also complained that they weren't consulted in advance about the proposal.

Calvin Ball, the third Democrat on the council, said the "theory is attractive," but added, "I am disappointed that they didn't move forward in a bipartisan manner" before having a news conference.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said through a spokesman that he would study the bill when it is introduced. Robey is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election. He is running for state Senate.

Feaga seemed confident about the proposal's prospects.

"We think this is salable - who would want to vote against it?" asked Feaga, a fiscal conservative who represents western Howard.

If adopted, the idea would expand on a law approved by Howard's council last year that allows residents 65 and older to defer property tax increases until their homes are sold.

That has attracted just 90 participants, said Sharon Greisz, county finance director, partly because some older homeowners object to having a county lien placed on their homes for the taxes owed, and partly because the first year deferral is typically small.

Former county police Chief Wayne Livesay said he suggested the bill to Merdon because of his 73-year-old mother's experience. She would qualify under the deferral program, he said, but she would never allow a lien to be placed on her paid-for home.

Grace Livesay already pays only half of her $3,200 annual property tax bill because she qualifies under the state's credit program for fixed-income seniors, but her bill would drop farther, he said, if the county measure is approved.

Several seniors who attended the event where the sponsors announced their proposal said the plan seemed attractive but wouldn't help them.

Linda Katz, 63, said her husband is 69, but their retirement income is too high for them to qualify. Angeline Jordan, 78, is old enough, but said she lives with her son's family in Clarksville.

"It sounds good. Everything sounds good, but is it going to go through?" she asked.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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