Pandering to older voters

November 02, 2006

The Howard County Council's decision, one week before the election, to cut property taxes for elderly residents by 25 percent raises the question of whether any purpose is being served beyond currying favor with likely voters.

No doubt there are economic as well as social benefits in helping retirees on fixed incomes remain in their homes without taxes tapping deeply into their disposable incomes. AARP contends that older people who remain in their communities with support networks of family, friends, activities and perhaps even jobs remain healthy longer and less of a drain on the health care system.

But this break is so generous, it may well ultimately shift some of the tax burden to younger families who may also be squeezed. Finding the proper balance between helping homeowners truly in need and spreading the cost of county government over the broadest possible base required more time than the hasty pre-election vote allowed.

No one is under any illusion about why the council, which includes two candidates for county executive as well as hopefuls for other offices, acted when it did.

The property tax is distinctly unpopular because it is so visible, particularly among those who no longer pay it a month at a time into escrow along with a mortgage.

But a 25 percent cut on tax bills, which are then frozen in place for homeowners 70 and older with incomes under $75,000 regardless of the value of their property, ensures unequal treatment even within that group. A 75-year-old widow with a home valued at $1.6 million would get a much bigger break than someone of the same age with a lower income living in a more modest bungalow.

Maryland has been experimenting at the state and local level since the 1970s with various schemes for sheltering property owners from the effects of soaring assessments, particularly homeowners on low or fixed incomes. Yet the Howard County Council went much further than any of its neighbors to grant a break for older constituents that won't even take effect until next July and will deny funds to a budget that must be shaped by its successors.

Chalk it up to a new form of get-out-the-vote drive.

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