Tax law panel's work due scrutiny

Most on council reticent as they await Monday's presentation

February 09, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The stew of ideas about how to change Howard County's senior property tax-cut law is stirring toward a boil as elected officials react to recommendations from a citizens task force.

The County Council, which has just under two weeks to decide on any new legislation, is to get a presentation on the committee's work Monday, while one county legislator is submitting bills aimed at influencing the outcome. A bill to change the law must be submitted to the council by Feb. 22 to affect July's property tax bills, officials have said.

The Republican-sponsored tax law, unanimously approved Oct. 30 by the previous council, gives homeowners ages 70 and older with incomes less than $75,000 a year a 25 percent property tax cut and freezes their bills for as long as they own their homes.

The task force empanelled by the newly elected County Council voted this week to recommend that the law be repealed and replaced with a more restrictive measure that includes a lower income eligibility ceiling, an asset test, and does not freeze tax bills.

The group chose an initial $54,760 income ceiling and an asset test matching the state's $200,000 limit, excluding the applicant's home and retirement accounts. The group also voted to remove the freeze aspect of the law, which an assistant attorney general has said in an informal opinion is illegal. County officials estimated that the changes would reduce the county's annual revenue loss to less than $2 million.

"I appreciate the committee's work. They really worked very, very hard," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat. Ball is the only current council member who voted on the original law in October, and he advocated more study at that time.

But like most council members, Ball isn't showing all his cards just yet.

"I'm definitely going to consider the [recommendations]. I'll await the reports before I start making firm decisions," he said.

County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat who as a county councilman last year also expressed reservations about the law while voting to approve it, endorsed the committee's decision.

"I would say the recommendations of the committee appear reasonable," he said, adding that the issue now "is really in the council's hands." His interest, he said, is to help seniors without creating a ballooning revenue drain on the county treasury.

Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, seemed to be leaning the same way.

"I'd be inclined to follow their recommendations," she said, adding that she would have to study the situation first.

Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she is "eagerly awaiting" the council's briefing on the committee's work.

"I want to be fair, not just to seniors, but to the entire county," she said, adding that she does not want a tax system "that discriminates against groups of citizens. What about renters," or disabled people on low incomes? she said.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who had questioned the need to create the task force, said she has "got a lot of questions about those recommendations. I haven't made a decision yet. I want to look carefully at the results of the committee."

Greg Fox, a western county Republican, said he is against an asset test, but he said he has not had time to see the committee's recommendations. He is also working with Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, an accountant, on several state bills that could, if approved, affect the situation.

Bates had submitted a local bill this year that has failed at least twice before. The bill would require big property tax cuts for county seniors, but she has withheld it from a delegation vote, waiting to see what the County Council does.

This week, Bates said she submitted a new statewide bill that would allow counties that enact tax breaks for older homeowners to start the discounts at age 65 instead of 70.

A second measure would allow seniors who sell their houses and move within their home county to immediately bring to their new residences the assessment cap protections that limit homeowners' annual tax increases. Such homebuyers now lose that cap protection for one year.

Bates' bill would provide a temporary cushion for those who want to downsize, she said. Her bill would also protect people forced to move because of state actions such as highway construction projects.

"It really has a broader range than Howard County," Bates said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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