Senior tax cut tests council

Time limits, makeup of task force likely focus of discussion session

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

Two issues — The touchy topic of whether to change the generous property tax cut for seniors approved just before November's election is proving a test for the new Howard County Council.

Two issues - time limits and membership - are awaiting a likely council work session discussion Tuesday on a resolution creating a citizens task force to examine the full implications of the cut and recommend changes.

The law, unanimously approved Oct. 30 and signed by former County Executive James N. Robey, gives homeowners 70 and older with incomes of $75,000 or less a permanent 25 percent property tax cut. Howard also allows seniors 65 or older with the same income limits to defer property tax increases as long as they own their homes.

But if the current council wants to change the tax law in time to affect property tax bills mailed July 1, it must have legislation ready by Feb. 22 to introduce a bill in March and vote on it April 2, according to Sharon Greisz, county finance director.

Susan Buswell, a former co-chairwoman of the League of Women Voters and a league appointee to the council task force, told council members at a hearing Monday night that requiring the group to make a final report by then could be difficult because most volunteers have not been chosen.

"I'm quite concerned about that," the former House of Delegates member said. "If you are truly serious about looking at this situation, you need to have sufficient time," she said.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he believes the task force should be able to do its work in the time required.

"Look at the governor's transition team," on which he serves, he said. "We're looking at every aspect of higher education across the state in a month and evaluating it. I've been very clear since October about my intentions" to further explore the tax cut's implications, he said.

Other speakers, including Bridget Mugane of the Howard County Citizens' Association, and Frank Chase, representing the Association of Community Services, asked that representatives from their groups be added to the committee.

The resolution gives each of the five council members one appointment and asks County Executive Ken Ulman to choose six members, including two nonvoting staff members.

The league would appoint two members and the group would choose its chairman. The resolution is to be voted on Jan 2.

Behind the maneuvering is tension over whether the tax break would cost the county too much in revenue or give seniors wealthy enough to own a home an unfair tax break.

"In my own family, my son urges me not to oppose [the tax cut] because his inheritance will improve, but without it, his taxes might be lower," Buswell told the council. Some critics contend that the county might have to raise other taxes if the senior cut costs too much.

Estimates in October were that the tax cut would cost the county treasury between $2 million and $4 million a year in revenues. Many seniors are reluctant to use the tax-deferral program because that involves a lien on their homes for the taxes owed.

Cathy Stefano, a supporter of the cut, urged the council not to make confusing changes.

"I'm begging you. Do not make it so convoluted that the seniors won't apply for it. Honor the tax cuts," she said.

Another speaker, Steve Fine of Columbia, took a different view.

"I'm asking that you not establish a task force and repeal the credit."

Ball tried to limit speakers to the subject of the resolution that created the task force instead of allowing arguments about the tax cut but was only partly successful.

Paul Bordenet of Clarksville suggested combining the tax cut and the deferral plan somehow, adding, however, that in his opinion it is "outrageous" to subsidize people who own homes and have incomes up to $75,000.

Don Dunn, a former County Council candidate who said he would qualify for the credit, said he favors the task force because research on the implications of the cut were "insufficient in the heat of a campaign."

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