Seniors tax cut pushed by GOP

Merdon e-mail drive asks lobbying effort on behalf of bill

Seniors tax cut gets a push from GOP

October 06, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County Council Democrats have promised to vote for a Republican-sponsored property tax cut for seniors on the night before Halloween - and just eight days before the general election - but the GOP isn't taking any chances.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a co-sponsor of the bill and the Republican nominee for county executive, sent out a "Senior Alert" e-mail to organize a lobbying campaign on behalf of the tax cut after Democrats postponed a vote Tuesday. He said he was "extremely disappointed" by the Democrats' action.

"I don't know why they want to leave seniors hanging on for another month," he said after the meeting.

The bill would permanently cut property taxes 25 percent for homeowners 70 and older with a household income less than $75,000. Estimates are that it would cost the county between $2 million and $4 million a year.

Several seniors responded quickly to Merdon's appeal.

"I implore you to take an up or down vote," wrote Phyllis Vienne, who said she is a widow who moved to Columbia in 1969 and raised three children. In an e-mail to Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, she said, "My combined income of retirement and Social Security do not cover my annual expenses of just existing in this area."

Richard Stranathan, another older resident, wrote to all three council Democrats, saying that "a 25 percent tax cut doesn't sound like too much when you are living on a fixed-income and property taxes continue to go up."

The tax cut appears politically irresistible coming just before the Nov. 7 election, though members of the county's Commission on Aging have raised questions.

"You've got until June, so what's the rush to judgment now, when all of these questions are out there?" said Ted Meyerson, vice chairman of the commission.

Meyerson said that in the commission's view, "there is no clear information concerning the number of people who will be affected and the number of dollars involved."

Meyerson - who, like other members of the commission, favors a tax break in concept - questioned whether the lost revenue would come out of other programs for seniors or what would happen when the county's senior population swells as predicted.

Merdon and Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, have said there is likely to be a $20 million surplus from last fiscal year, but County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said he wants that used to begin paying a $477 million debt for future retiree medical benefits required by a change in federal accounting standards.

Also, Meyerson said the surplus could disappear in future years, now that the real estate market has deflated.

"There's never enough money. The senior population is going to double. How are you going to prepare for that?" Meyerson asked.

Howard's 5 percent-a-year assessment cap limits property tax increases, and the council last year enacted a tax-deferral program for senior homeowners 65 and older. But many older residents object to using that program because it involves a lien on their homes for the taxes owed. The state also has a property tax relief program for low-income homeowners.

Feaga raised another issue about Democrats' intentions.

"I hope we don't see a row of amendments that could kill it," he said.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, moved to table the senior tax- cut bill, and Guzzone and Councilman Ken Ulman, the Democratic nominee for county executive, agreed. Ball later said he wants time to work on an amendment that would disqualify wealthy people with minimal incomes from receiving the benefit. Democrats said the delay was inconsequential because the tax cut would not take effect until July 1.

"The bill has merits," Ball said after the council meeting, but he said he felt a responsibility to make sure the bill is well written.

Merdon was blunt in his e-mail.

"I regret to inform you that Council Bill 68-2006 Senior Property Tax Credit did not pass the County Council," Merdon wrote. "This means that Howard County seniors will NOT receive a 25 percent property tax cut nor will their taxes be frozen for the remainder of their life in Howard County, as hoped," he wrote.

He urged seniors to contact the Democrats and press them to approve the bill.

In an e-mail distributed Wednesday, Ball said, "I disagree with the suggestion from some that we should rush this proposal in this year and try to fix it next year. I believe we need to take time now to do it right."

Feaga had said that if problems crop up once the program begins, future county councils could make changes.

Democrats said they will vote for the bill Oct. 30, the council's final meeting before leaving office in December.

"There will be a senior tax cut passed Oct. 30. I don't know how to say that more clearly," Ulman said. "We will support it."

In other action, the council:

Unanimously approved another, more narrowly focused property tax cut: a credit of up to $5,000 for homeowners who install solar or geothermal energy-saving equipment. The bill, sponsored by Guzzone, has an annual cap of $250,000 on the amount of tax credits given out.

Tabled a bill that would allow developers to get cable television franchises for individual housing projects of less than 1,600 units. Ulman said he is hoping to craft a compromise that would give residents of the Taylor Village development in Ellicott City a choice on video services. They complained that they are locked by covenants into paying developer Dr. Bruce Taylor's in-house cable firm $65 a month whether they want his service or not.

Allowed Ball to withdraw an affordable-housing bill that drew fire from some who worried that it could open the way for large apartment buildings that could be incompatible in older areas.

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