County senior property tax credit could be changed

Citizens committee weighs recommending revisions to council

October 19, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,SUN REPORTER

More changes could be coming to Howard County's senior property tax credit. A citizens committee plans to vote next week on what, if any, further revisions it will recommend to the County Council next month.

Committee members discussed possible changes at a meeting Tuesday, including creating an application form that is easier for seniors to fill out and getting rid of the law's requirement that seniors who apply for the county tax break also apply for a state tax credit.

The committee hopes to approve a draft report when it meets Thursday, Chairman Ted L. Meyerson said.

The Senior Tax Credit law gives a 25 percent property tax credit to county homeowners age 70 and older. To qualify, they must have incomes less than $68,450 and assets less than $500,000, excluding their homes.

The law requires that anyone applying for the tax break must first apply for state property tax credits, after which the county determines whether the applicant is eligible for any more tax credit.

Task force member Don Dunn said the means test should be eliminated because calculating assets is a complicated process that has "probably caused more errors."

He said seniors' assets have nothing to do with their financial "liquidity" and ability to afford ever-increasing property taxes.

Dunn argued that if the county can't afford the tax break for seniors, it should look for other ways to make up the lost revenue - such as replacing it with taxes on nonprofits and homeowners associations, like the Columbia Association, which currently receives property tax breaks that Dunn says it might no longer need.

"Maybe it is time to look at this whole property tax issue," Dunn said.

Committee members also brought up some seniors' difficulty in filling out applications, an issue the county has tried to remedy by including postcards with every property tax bill to inform recipients that one-on-one sessions are available with county employees.

Task force members questioned how to address potential problems with the current law without having reliable figures on how many people who qualify for the tax break apply for it.

"What we don't know is how many people did not apply," Meyerson said.

Some committee members suggested sending more applications earlier to help develop a more accurate picture of how many seniors might apply for the credit.

Early estimates predicted that about 2,400 people qualified for the program, but only 1,086 applications had been received through Oct. 9, according to a report the county's Department of Finance gave to the committee earlier this month.

Linda Watts, chief of the Bureau of Revenue in the county Department of Finance, said that mailing the applications earlier might not be a solution.

"There will be people that wait until the end of August to do their applications" even if applications go out in January, Watts said.

The deadline for the submission of applications to the county this year has been extended to Oct. 31. Next year's application deadline will be Sept. 1.

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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