Senior tax aid tops agenda

After residents have their say at hearing, council to consider changes in relief law

March 21, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Buffeted by sharply divergent citizen views, Howard County Council members are set to begin hashing out changes in the generous senior property tax credit approved just before last fall's election.

Three bills and a resolution are on the agenda for Monday's council work session discussion, which is to precede a vote scheduled for April 4.

Residents tried hard to sway the decision at a public hearing Monday night in Ellicott City, though several people with opposing views agreed on one thing -- that the current law, passed one week before the November election, was a political gimmick.

"Personally, I don't think the [original] bill should have ever been approved. It was a political ploy," said Paul Spause of Hanover, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year. Despite that view, Spause said that "I've never met a tax cut I don't like," and told the County Council members that repealing the law in favor of the new bills "would be the worst violation of the public trust I can imagine."

The bill unanimously approved by the last council Oct. 31 gives a 25 percent property tax cut to those ages 70 and older with incomes less than $75,000 a year. The law also freezes their reduced bill for as long as they own their house.

Virginia Thomas, a former council member and state delegate, and her husband, Charles, testified that allowing older homeowners to have such a large tax break, and then pass the savings on to their heirs, is wrong.

"Personal responsibility is what the feds are pushing in the ownership society. They shouldn't get a handout from the government," Virginia Thomas said. "Two wrongs don't make a right. Repeal the previous law."

Charles Thomas said, "The other [County Council] people didn't have the courage to say it was a political ploy, and so we have a bad law. There is no demonstrated need for this."

County law already allows those ages 65 and older with the same income limits to defer property tax increases until their homes are sold.

Ted L. Meyerson, who chairs a citizens task force appointed by the County Council in January to suggest changes in the law, said the group tried to "curve the bill toward those who need it most." The group is to continue meeting through November, and might propose new ideas to broaden tax relief to include seniors who don't own homes.

One of the new bills, sponsored by council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who voted for the original measure, proposes three major changes in the law suggested by Meyerson's committee.

Council Bill 10 would:

Reduce the income eligibility ceiling to four times the federal poverty level, or $54,760 this year.

Apply the same $200,000 asset test used in the state's property tax circuit-breaker law for all low-income homeowners. That amount does not include the applicant's house and up to 1 acre, or any retirement savings accounts.

Not permanently freeze property tax bills but would provide a tax reduction based on each year's annual bill -- after any tax relief allowed via the state program.

A second Ball measure, Council Bill 12, would expand eligibility for the local participants in the state tax program to people of all ages, covering homeowners with incomes up to $56,000 and up to $300,000 worth of their home's value. Ball said this bill, if approved, would "expand help available to people with income or tax challenges, regardless of age." It would also reduce the amount of county revenues lost to tax cuts.

A third measure, Council Bill 11, sponsored by Greg Fox, a western county Republican, would separately require applicants to take full advantage of state tax-relief programs before qualifying for the county program.

The resolution would have county agencies request private tax preparers to inform their clients about property tax credits.

In addition, council members are considering a number of potential further amendments.

Fox questioned several speakers at the hearing who said their older generation did not have access to formal retirement accounts such as 401k's, and that disqualifying people with more than $200,000 in assets would not be fair.

Stanley Miller said he was born in the county and has owned property and paid taxes since 1945. When the new tax-credit law was approved, he rejoiced, he said.

"I thought I'd died and went to heaven," he said, urging the new council not to add an asset test.

Don Dunn, a member of the citizens task force, also supported the current law, calling Ball's Council Bill 10 "anti-senior. The task force lost sight of the purpose of the law."

Another homeowner, Robert Styer of Woodbine, also supported the current law and had a simple question: "What has changed since October?"

Don Bandel of Ellicott City said it is not fair to pass a law and then take it back: "How can we respect individuals who vote for something and in the next breath want to change it?"

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.