Harford executive seeks tax break for some homeowners

Measure would reduce property levy bfor residents living on lower incomes

January 17, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,[ sun reporter ]

Harford County wants to join other jurisdictions in the metropolitan area that offer property tax breaks for some senior citizens and others on fixed incomes, as local governments seek to offer relief to residents who face rising tax bills in homes that have appreciated rapidly in recent years. Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties are among the jurisdictions that have approved property tax relief initiatives, and Baltimore City is considering one. Jurisdictions in dozens of other states have implemented similar programs. At a senior center in Bel Air yesterday, Harford County Executive David R. Craig announced a bill that could save an eligible taxpayer as much as $1,500 annually, depending on the assessed value of the home and the owner?s income and assets besides the home. The proposal seeks to broaden an existing state homeowner tax credit and allowmore residents to apply for the reduction. Several in attendance at the McFaul Senior Center yesterday said they would welcome the relief. ?I have just been reassessed, and it?s becoming a real burden,? said Elaine Burkhardt, 64, of Jarrettsville. ?I am surrounded bymansions, but I live in an old country home, a well-maintained one, but still old.? Dick Yingling, 73, a Bel Air condo owner who lives on his monthly Social Security payment, said he has moved because his taxes keep rising. ?If I move much farther, I will be back in Baltimore County,? he said. The proliferation of relief measures has accompanied the general rise in real estate values nationwide, according to tax policy analysts. As values rise, so do assessments, and property tax bills follow suit. Measures such as Harford?s are often referred to as ?circuit-breaker relief.? ?These programs are often implemented as a way of letting off some steam in local areas to avoid something that could be worse,? said Kim Rueben, a public finance economist at the Tax Policy Center inWashington. Some analysts take a dim view of such tax breaks, saying they can be difficult to administer and can lead to inequities in a community?s tax structure. ?We feel property tax should be broad-based,? said Bill Ahearn, a spokesman for the Tax Foundation inWashington. ?They should just lower the rate [for everyone].? The Harford County Council was expected to review the proposal last night. The bill would target those whose homes are assessed as high as $400,000, which is $100,000 higher than the limit for the state program. Depending on income and assets, eligible residents could save from$300 to $1,500 on their property tax bills. A taxpayer living in a $350,000 home on a $40,000 annual income could save $1,587 next year. County officials do not expect the reduction in revenue to the county to exceed $1 million. Craig said the measure comes as a response to concerns voiced by seniors, many on fixed incomes,who are struggling to pay rising property taxes. Assessments statewide rose about 20 percent last year. ?Seniors have been paying the freight for decades,? Craig said. Like the state program?s criteria, Harford?s would fix the asset ceiling at $200,000 and the combined household income at $60,000. When the state doubled the home value limit on its credit to $300,000 last year, about 4,000 more elderly homeowners statewide qualified. In Carroll County, the commissioners boosted the maximum net worth criteria last year to $500,000, an amount that excludes the value of the home and qualified retirement plans. Howard County?s measure gives homeowners 70 and older with annual incomes of less than $75,000 a 25 percent property tax cut and then freezes their annual bill. The bill passed unanimously just days before the election last fall, but some officials questioned the haste with which the bill was approved and suggested a study after the election. Now a committee is meeting twice weekly to decide by Feb. 15whether to recommend changes. Harford has not included an age requirement in its proposal. Harford officials plan several workshops at area senior centers and applications would be available online. Many seniors at the center yesterday said theywould likely apply for the credit. ?If somebody offers you a coupon, you are going to take it,? said Burkhardt. mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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