Seniors back tax cut plan

But some speakers want more study of election-year proposal

September 20, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Scores of Howard County seniors are seeking swift County Council approval of a Republican-sponsored property tax cut for residents 70 and older, though several people are urging caution on the election-year measure.

"Once a senior has lived in the county 30 or 40 years, there should be some consideration," said Robert Garber, an Ellicott City resident who said he moved to his home in August 1958 and raised four children there.

The bill, sponsored by council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the GOP candidate for county executive, and Charles C. Feaga, who represents the western county, is one of several measures that drew impassioned speakers at Monday night's hearing in Ellicott City.

Many came to oppose a bill that would allow cable television franchises to developers for a single development with less than 1,600 customers.

Dozens of residents of Taylor Village, a development near the old Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City, are furious with developer Dr. Bruce Taylor, who they said is forcing them to pay $65 a month for video services provided by his in-house firm - whether they want it or not.

Others came to oppose granting public water and sewer rights for a 45-acre parcel at Turf Valley, part of a large development that is planned.

In addition, the council also is scheduled to vote in October on another property tax credit bill for people who install solar or geothermal energy-saving devices in their homes - a bill sponsored by Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Most speakers came for the Merdon-Feaga tax cut bill, which would give people 70 and older with annual household incomes under $75,000 a 25 percent property tax cut and then freeze it.

The state estimate the measure will mean $1 million in lost revenues for the rest of this fiscal year (ending June 30) and $2 million annually after that.

If approved next month, the bill would supplement one passed last year that allows residents 65 and older to defer property tax increases, though that debt becomes a lien on the property, which some seniors don't like.

"I won't live with a lien on my property. I don't want to die with one on my property," said Cathy Stefano, of Columbia, who testified in support of the bill.

Others argued that keeping longtime residents at home would help the school system and reduce the bill's cost by delaying younger families with children from buying the homes.

But other speakers raised questions about the bill's language, and amendments are likely, Merdon and other councilmen indicated.

Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also running for county executive, asked one speaker if a minimum residency requirement - say five years - would be objectionable.

Ted Meyerson, vice chairman of the county's Commission on Aging, suggested the bill be referred to staff for more study.

"There are so many questions with this bill," Meyerson said. They include the exact definition of "household income;" whether an expensive improvement needed to help a senior stay in their home - such as a first-floor bedroom or elevator - would disqualify the owner; or whether growing Social Security income could put seniors over the income limit once they qualified. Meyerson also wondered if seniors would have to reapply annually, based on the bill's language.

"The idea is laudable, " Meyerson said, "but the commission finds many things prevent us from endorsing it."

Merdon said he has county staff researching the questions several speakers raised and planned amendments, if needed.

"I feel very confident we already have answers to these questions," and a vote can be taken next month as scheduled, he said.

On the cable bill, residents of Taylor Village denounced their community's developer and Feaga, the sponsor. Feaga said he introduced it on Taylor's behalf but would drop support "if I find they [residents] don't have a fair choice."

Residents said they weren't told before buying their expensive homes that they would be bound by covenants Taylor created via the homeowners association his firm controls to pay his Ellicott City cable firm - even if they bought service elsewhere. If they fail to pay, he could get a lien on their homes.

"Shame on Howard County for allowing this to happen in the first place. You'd have blind people paying for cable television. Shame on you," John Kopman shouted at the council during his testimony.

Steve Hannan, the county's consumer protection administrator, opposes the bill.

"This is unfair. This is a monopoly," Hannan said.

Taylor testified that his firm is trying to provide "competition and timely service" that is not available from other providers but acknowledged that residents "feel captive and not informed."

"We have gotten off to something of a rocky start," he said, adding that he is negotiating with Hannan to allow residents to opt out of his service.

Residents also complained that Taylor's firm is providing poor service.

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