New senior tax aid urged

Split advisory panel backs increasing property-levy breaks

October 26, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

A badly split citizens committee tentatively agreed yesterday to recommend an added property tax break for low-income senior homeowners in Howard County.

The group is scheduled to meet next week to complete a report due to the County Council by mid-November.

Yesterday's 5-4 vote represented a victory for Don Dunn, a 78-year-old west county resident who has pushed hard on the 15-member Senior Tax Credit Task Force for more relief than the law now provides.

The vote frustrated Chairman Ted L. Meyerson's attempt to get the group to suggest leaving the law as it is until next year, when more data on how it is working are available.

Those favoring Meyerson's view said they believe the law has done mostly what was intended and that changing it before the first year of operation ends would just confuse residents and complicate operations in the second year.

"Applications would go out in January or February, and people won't have to learn how to do a new one. We can look at it again next year," Meyerson said. Sue Brown, another committee member, agreed that the County Council should not change the law now.

It is better, she said, not to "mess with this every year. It drives people nuts!"

But Dunn and fellow committee member Frank Chase argued that because some people with low retirement incomes who applied to both the state and the county for tax relief received state tax credits, but no additional discount from the county, they should get more help. County law now requires applicants to seek state relief, too. If the state credit exceeds 25 percent of their property tax bill -- the limit in the county law -- they receive no additional county credit.

County finance officials said that Howard homeowners who qualify and have incomes of $20,000 or less have seen their average property tax bill fall from $2,500 to $143.

"By changing nothing, what we're doing is continuing to eliminate lower-income seniors who need help the most," Dunn said. Cutting another percentage of that remaining $143 won't cost the county much money, he said.

Chase argued for completely eliminating county property taxes for some elderly homeowners.

"I don't think Howard County should be collecting property tax from anybody making under $30,000 a year," he said.

Meyerson acknowledged that some lower-income seniors received too large a state tax cut to qualify for anything additionally from the county, but he questioned whether that was a problem.

"When you start out with a $2,500 tax bill and end up with an average of $143, I'm not sure I see a problem," he said.

When Meyerson pushed for a vote on a draft report that recommended no change to the law, however, only four hands went up; five members voted to do more to help the lowest-income homeowners.

Sara Hamer, a member who voted with Dunn and Chase, said she agreed that more should be done for that lower-income group, but she wasn't sure what. Meyerson then ended the two-hour meeting and set a final session for Thursday.

The property tax issue for older homeowners first came up last year, when the former County Council unanimously approved a 25 percent property tax cut for homeowners ages 70 and older with incomes less than $75,000. That bill, passed just days before the November election in which two members were candidates for county executive, would have frozen those tax bills until the homes were sold.

After the election, the new County Council appointed a citizens committee to re-examine the issue and suggest changes if the benefit was found to be too generous with county revenues.

After several months of meetings, the group did suggest changes to focus the tax cut more on lower-income people, to include an assets test and to eliminate freezing the amount of the bill, which county lawyers said would be illegal.

As later adopted by the County Council, residents must be 70 or older, have an income less than $68,450 and assets of less than $500,000, excluding the house. Anyone eligible must also apply for state tax relief .

With the Oct. 30 deadline for applications looming, county finance officials said this month that more than 500 homeowners have qualified for an average $539.73 in tax relief per household. That has cost the county $272,563 in tax revenues -- much less than the $1.5 million estimate made before the program took effect.

Howard also has a tax deferral program that allows homeowners 65 or older with incomes less than $75,000 a year to defer increases in their property taxes until their homes are sold.

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