Panel won't urge changes in senior tax credit law

November 06, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Despite a last-minute push by two members, the county's Senior Tax Credit Task Force will not recommend changes to the two-year-old law that provides lower property taxes to older homeowners with limited incomes.

In lopsided votes at a meeting last week, the group rejected several suggestions from two members to recommend broadening the program in a final report to the County Council this month, which will also mark the expiration of the citizens committee.

"We've been meeting for two years," member Donald Dunn said. "It seems reasonable that we quit meeting."

Dunn saw three more of his attempts to expand the relief defeated by votes of 9-1 and 8-2.

This year, the county has awarded credits worth $397,221 on property tax bills from July 2008, according to Linda Watts, the county's chief of the Bureau of Revenue. The figures are not complete because residents had until Friday to apply. Watts said 1,116 residents have applied for tax cuts and 690 received credits. Another 142 are being processed, but 203 eligible applicants were denied credits because of the size of the cuts they received from the state program. Original expectations were for about 2,400 applicants a year who might qualify for up to $1.5 million in local tax relief.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published in the Howard County section Nov. 6 included incorrect information on the eligibility criteria for the Howard County program that provides property tax cuts for older homeowners.
Homeowners ages 70 or older, with incomes less than $70,000 and assets less than $500,000 excluding their homes, are eligible for a tax cut of up to 25 percent. Retirement savings count as assets under the county law.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The law provides up to a 25 percent reduction in property taxes for homeowners ages 70 or older who have annual incomes less than $70,000 and assets less than $500,000 excluding their homes and retirement accounts. Applicants must also seek a tax cut under the state's Homeowner's Property Tax Credit program for low-income homeowners of all ages. That relief comes from the state treasury, so it is mostly county residents with higher eligible incomes who are getting an added benefit from the county.

That rankles Dunn and committee member Frank Chase, who also offered a suggestion to broaden the law that was rejected, 8-2. Chase vowed to pursue it individually with council members and local state legislators, despite the committee's decision.

Dunn and Chase said they believe every eligible applicant should get at least some credit from the county, and Dunn said not enough people are getting tax cuts from the program. Chase is upset that county workers are wasting time processing so many applications that result in no county credit.

At last week's meeting in the county's new temporary office quarters in Columbia, Dunn first suggested lowering the minimum eligibility age from 70 to 60, though that would require a change in state law. He then proposed dropping the county's $500,000 asset test, and he asked that the county relief be disconnected from whatever credits the state provides.

Chase suggested something similar to Dunn's last idea. He would give any eligible county homeowner with a gross annual income of $45,000 or less a 25 percent property tax cut after any state relief had been granted. For each $1,000 of additional income, the county tax cut would drop by 1 percent.

Dunn said he wanted to lower the eligibility age to help seniors who may have suffered losses in the current recession and stock market drop. He lost that on a 9-1 vote.

He then argued for dropping the asset test because he feels it discourages too many people from applying, but former state Del. Sue Buswell, another committee member, noted that with the economic downturn, "a lot of people might qualify who couldn't qualify last year."

Dunn also pushed for uncoupling the state and county credit programs to expand participation and increase the benefits, but that and his asset test idea failed on 8-2 votes.

Chase fared no better with his idea, which also failed 8-2.

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