New panel to look at taxes

Short-term focus will be to recommend size of a seniors tax cut

January 05, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Recommendations on how large a property tax cut Howard County's oldest homeowners should get and who should qualify will be the short-term focus of a new citizens task force.

County Council officials are rushing to get a 15-member group chosen and operating in time to make an interim report to the council by Feb. 22 -- in time to affect July's tax bills.

In a compromise unanimously adopted by the five County Council members this week, the task force would then continue to study the law and issue a final report in November.

"It allows the task force to focus," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who sponsored the resolution. Separating the task force's work into two phases would help relieve the time pressures on the group, Ball said.

The tax-cut law, sponsored by Republican former Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon and Charles C. Feaga, gives homeowners 70 and older with annual incomes under $75,000 a permanent 25 percent property tax cut, at an estimated cost in revenues of $2 million to $4 million. A similar law, with a $35,000 income ceiling, was just introduced in the Baltimore City Council.

The Howard task force is to examine only the income ceiling and the percentage of tax cut to see if any changes should be made. The group's recommendations could be adopted or rejected by the council.

Ball was one of the five members of the previous County Council who voted to adopt the tax cut Oct. 30, days before November's election. But he and then-Councilman Ken Ulman, now the county executive, said then that they would like to study the law's effects more thoroughly.

Several groups, including members of the county Commission on Aging, worried that the election-year tax cut was pushed through as a political gimmick without any real scrutiny. But others recently expressed doubts that the citizens group created by Ball's resolution could do thorough research by late February.

"It's encouraging," said a doubtful Sue Buswell after watching the council vote. "They're looking at it somewhat more seriously."

Buswell, a former League of Women Voters president, is to represent the league on the committee, a council official said.

Others, like Cathy Stefano, 70, said the law should be left unchanged.

"There should not be a task force," she said. "I think they should honor the law. Give it the full year" to see how many people qualify and how many apply.

But Don Dunn, 78, a West Friendship resident who will help represent the county's Commission on Aging on the committee, said the task force would be useful.

"Clearly, I'm in favor of tax breaks for seniors, but at the same time, let's make sure the county budget people present the facts as they are," Dunn said.

The Feb. 22 interim reporting deadline is the result of practical constraints. That's the day that council bills scheduled for introduction in March must be filed.

A bill entered in March would normally be voted on in April, and approved bills take effect after 61 days, which extends the process until June. That's the deadline for county finance officials to get the information used to compile property tax bills, which are mailed July 1.

Meeting Tuesday night in Ellicott City, the County Council adopted a series of amendments to the task force resolution. The group will have 15 voting members, plus county budget director Ron Weinstein and finance director Sharon Greisz.

The council added representatives from the Howard County Citizens Association, the county Economic Development Authority, the Howard County Taxpayers Association, the Association of Community Services and the local chapter of the AARP. The League of Women Voters will have one member rather than two.

Council members seemed satisfied with the changes.

"This breaks the assignment of the task force into two different parts so we can get some answers for this fiscal year," said Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said the changes "allow us to look at a really small portion of it."

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she is "more comfortable" with the changes, and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said addition of the amendments "allows us to go forward."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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