Tax change promoted

Ulman seeks proportional rates for limited-income residents

December 22, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is moving to change a seemingly contradictory policy under which people with limited incomes often own a partial share of their subsidized homes but must pay property taxes on the full market value.

Ulman, who said during his election campaign that he would like to reduce that burden, asked the local General Assembly delegation this week to help him deliver on that pledge by passing a tax-relief bill.

The property tax legislation is one of a package of local bills Ulman is asking county legislators to support in next month's Assembly session.

They also include a bill to strengthen the county's power to enforce zoning-violation laws and three state bond bills requesting $1.5 million for Blandair Park, North Laurel Community Park and the proposed Robinson Nature Center on Cedar Lane.

In addition to the administration bills, the delegation will consider legislation to prohibit carrying a machete at night, extend partial voting rights to a student school board member and create a new class of liquor license for the sale of organic beer and wines. Another bill would cut property taxes 30 percent to 50 percent for senior homeowners, depending on how long they have occupied their homes.

The housing bill would allow buyers of moderate-income housing to pay property taxes only on the portion of the home they own -- typically 50 percent to 60 percent. The county housing commission owns the rest, but currently buyers must pay taxes on the full retail value of the home, which can mean nearly $200 a month more for a typical buyer.

"They own 60 percent, and we're putting 100 percent of the burden on them," Ulman told the county legislators in a breakfast meeting in the county's Gateway Building on Wednesday morning. He said the idea of limiting taxes was suggested by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group of local social service agencies worried that the higher cost of homes is making even subsidized units too expensive for moderate-income buyers.

Anne Towne, executive director of ACS, praised the bill.

"It's an important option to have as we do the mix of housing," she said.

Ulman organized the breakfast -- his first with members of the county's legislative delegation -- to greet them, present them with his requests and assure them that "we're going to play an active role in Annapolis." He said he will shortly announce the hiring of a legislative affairs director.

A public hearing on all local General Assembly bills is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 in the County Council chambers in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he requested the machete bill because he sees it as an anti-gang measure. It would allow police to "intercede and be proactive" if they see anyone carrying the long-bladed weapon at night.

Last week, a 54-year-old Columbia man was sentenced to life in prison for a bloody 2005 attack on his estranged wife with a machete. The incident took place during the day.

Another Ulman administration bill would enable the county to clamp down on zoning violators who refuse to comply with the law -- by hiring a hearing examiner to handle the cases or by allowing the county to clean up a mess and place a lien on the violator's property to collect the cost.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said that having an examiner who is a lawyer -- a practice already used in Baltimore County -- would encourage compliance without forcing the county to go to court as often.

McLaughlin said the county tries to persuade violators to comply with the law, but some are stubborn.

"If they don't pay a fine, then we've got to go to court. If you're clever, you can avoid paying a fine for a very long time," she said.

A hearing examiner would help convince violators that the infraction is serious and should be addressed, she said. The other option, called "clean and lien," would allow the county to send a crew to clean up a mess and place a lien on the property if the landowner refuses to pay the cost.

State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican, pointed out that a recalcitrant violator can appeal to the courts anyway, but McLaughlin said most would not choose to take disputes that far once they had lost before an examiner.

In addition to the housing and zoning bills, the Ulman administration is asking for three state bond bills worth $500,000 each. The money would to continue planning for development of Blandair Park in Columbia, to help build the North Laurel Community Center, and to begin work on a new county-owned nature center at Cedar Lane, near Route 32.

Several legislators had questions about park development, starting with a reference by Sen.-elect James N. Robey to complaints from several nearby residents that the North Laurel Park's planned community center -- which will feature rooms for seniors, health, recreation and police programs -- would also draw "riffraff" to the neighborhood.

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