Tax protester has his say

Dornan questions worth of panel studying senior levy-relief law

January 12, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

Patrick Dornan's tax protest group may be dormant, but he is not.

The fiery founder of the Howard County Taxpayers Association made his presence quickly felt this week at the first meeting of a citizens task force charged with studying a generous property tax cut for seniors enacted just before November's election. The group has five weeks to recommend any changes to the County Council -- enough time to alter the law before any tax bills are mailed in July.

Dornan lost an early bid to be elected chairman of the 15-member group, getting one vote -- his own -- and then questioned whether the group's work would have any real meaning.

"I've served on these task forces before," he said. "The county executive or council create a task force solely for the purpose of selling their position." If the group reaches conclusions the politicians like, "then they can say citizens agree with them. If not, it is ignored."

Dornan contends county government spending is growing far too fast, and homeowners should get to keep as much of their money as possible.

Task force Chairman Ted Meyerson, a county Commission on Aging member who raised questions about the law before the last County Council approved it Oct. 30, said he cannot speak for the county, but tried to reassure members that the group's work will be taken seriously.

"There is deep feeling that this bill has no guidance -- no definitive ramifications. They [the new County Council] are looking for help, but taxes are a problem. What is this tax bill supposed to do, for whom? They [the council] will act," Meyerson said, on the group's recommendations.

The law gives homeowners 70 and older with annual incomes less than $75,000 a 25 percent property tax cut and then freezes their annual bill. Sponsored by then-Republican council members Christopher J. Merdon, then a candidate for county executive, and Charles C. Feaga, the bill passed unanimously just days before the election, which Merdon lost.

"The bill's purpose was clearly to get votes. That's a morally repugnant reason to pass anything," Dornan said.

Meyerson and others, including County Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, and former council member Ken Ulman -- now county executive -- questioned the haste with which the bill was approved and suggested a study after the election. The resulting committee, which met Wednesday for the first time in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, plans to meet twice weekly to decide by Feb. 15 whether to recommend that either the $75,000 income limit or the 25 percent tax cut rate be changed.

Some worry that the predicted $2 million to $4 million annual loss in revenue that is expected could hurt the county's ability to provide services to seniors and other lower-income people, or conversely that the law could affect very few people who need help.

Tax-cut advocates like Dornan contend that sharply higher home values and assessments are causing steadily higher property tax bills, slowly driving older homeowners to move out of the county. In their place, Dornan argued Wednesday, will come young families with children who are much more expensive users of county services.

Frank Chase, a committee member representing the Association of Community Services, said he knows several people who have moved to Pennsylvania and other states to escape Maryland income taxes, but he said he objects to another aspect of the new Howard law -- the lack of a residency requirement.

"I don't believe we should be subsidizing somebody who comes here from Montana or New Hampshire to be near their grandkids who has never paid a dime of taxes in Howard County," Chase said. The group was told by Lynn Robeson, a senior assistant county solicitor, that residency requirements have been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Maryland attorney general's office.

Sue Buswell, a former member of the House of Delegates who represents the League of Women Voters, said she does not mind continuing to pay taxes for schools even though her children graduated years ago.

"I don't feel that as a long-term taxpayer in the county I have [yet] paid for my children's education," Buswell said.

Howard County allows those 65 and older with the same income limits to defer property tax increases interest-free until their homes are sold, but only 105 homeowners have used that program, partly because many older residents object to having a lien on their property for the taxes owed, Sharon Greisz, the county finance director, told the group. There is also a state property tax-relief program for homeowners of any age with incomes less than $60,000.

The county budget director, Ron Weinstein, told the group yesterday that according to his calculations, the new law would cost the county between $2 million and $4.3 million in revenue per year. In five years, that could amount to more than $20 million, he said.

Dornan immediately declared that $4.3 million is a "minuscule" portion of the total $1.2 billion county budget, while Sherman Howell, another committee member said, "There's a great need in this county for $4 million."

"Do we know how many people in this age bracket have a problem paying their taxes?" Meyerson asked.

There was no certain answer, though county planner Jeff Bronow promised to bring additional census data to Tuesday's meeting.

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