Seniors tax cut may face changes

Democrats ask for new look at just-passed bill

November 01, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Already, Councilman Calvin Ball — Despite unanimous passage of a Republican-sponsored senior property tax cut by the County Council this week, Democrats may try to change the program before it takes effect for next summer's tax bills.

Already, Councilman Calvin Ball - the appointed east Columbia Democrat running for a full four-year council term - is drafting a resolution calling for a bipartisan task force to study the new program and recommend changes in time to make them before the property tax bills go out.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive, said that if he wins, he would re-examine the bill co-sponsored by council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the Republican executive nominee.

And Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat running for council in District 4, Ulman's current district, said she would also like to get more information on the measure if she wins.

The bill would apply to property tax bills mailed July 1, 2007.

"The Commission on Aging raised some interesting points," Ulman said before voting. Commission members had urged delay and more study of the election-year bill, noting that the county had no idea how many people qualify for the relief or how many seniors sell their homes and move because of taxes.

The bill, approved Monday, would give seniors 70 or older who have annual incomes under $75,000 a 25 percent property tax cut and freezes their annual bill until their homes are sold. Seniors would have to re-apply each year.

Officials in Maryland's largest seven jurisdictions and at the Maryland Association of Counties said they know of no tax cut as generous, though no statewide survey has been done.

Ball said his resolution would urge "the next administration and council to put together a task force to evaluate the effectiveness of this credit and ensure it helps seniors who need it the most."

He added: "If they come out with ways to increase the effectiveness, I think the council should act quickly."

If the Democrats don't win a majority on the five-member council, things may be different when the new council is sworn in Dec. 4. A new executive and council will be elected Tuesday.

Merdon said yesterday he has no interest in creating a study committee if he is elected next week.

"This is the best bill that could have passed," he said.

Ball had prepared amendments to the bill, but the council Democrats didn't introduce them Monday for fear they would block a vote at this council's last formal meeting, killing the bill and angering hundreds of likely voters.

Gina Ellrich, the Republican running against Ball, said she, too, favors the bill as the council approved it. District 4 Republican candidate Tom D'Asto also said he is not interested in any re-examination .

"I think it's a good bill. There's always room for improvement, but Calvin's amendments failed to do that," Ellrich said.

Said D'Asto: "If they passed it, why would we go back and look at it?"

Ball's amendments would have changed the bill to provide direct aid to the lowest-income senior homeowners in two ways.

One amendment would have required an asset test, limiting benefits to those who have less than $200,000, not counting their home, land, retirement investments and personal property.

Another amendment would have lowered the income ceiling from $75,000 to a sliding scale with a maximum of about $73,000. In addition, instead of freezing a senior's tax bill based on one base year's bill, Ball's amendments would have based the credit on each succeeding year's property tax bill. That means the bill would have risen slightly each year.

Before the council meeting Monday night, Merdon told a group of seniors that if Ball's amendments passed, "you're going to spend more on an attorney and an accountant than you'll get from the tax break."

After the unanimous vote, Merdon said he was pleased the amendments were not introduced. Since the Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the council, they could have approved the changes over objections from Merdon and his co-sponsor, Councilman Charles C. Feaga.

A dozen seniors came to the meeting to support passage of the bill as introduced, and dozens more e-mailed councilmen before the vote.

Patrick Dornan, former president of the Howard County Taxpayer's Association, dismissed Democrat's doubts about the bill, which sponsors say could cost the county up to $4 million a year in lost revenues.

"They had a $38 million surplus," he said about the fiscal year that closed June 30. "There's no reason they can't cut taxes - election year or anytime."

Cathy Stefano, a senior who attended the council meeting, said she knows people who have moved to Pennsylvania and Delaware because tax rates are lower in those states.

"Seniors in Howard County helped build Howard County. Now it's time to give back," she said.

But John Adolphsen, 80, of Fulton, said he can see the issue both ways.

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