A Tax Benefit For The Disabled

Howard Council Considers Bill To Excuse Public Safety Workers From Property Tax

November 01, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A bid that would excuse disabled former public safety workers from county property taxes sounds simple but is proving complicated as the County Council prepares to vote on the bill Monday night.

The current bill, backed by County Executive Ken Ulman and all five council members, would give the tax break only to former police and correctional officers, firefighters and volunteers who are 100 percent disabled and both work for and live in Howard County.

Courtney Watson, the Ellicott City Democrat who introduced the bill, said the administration wants an amendment to include the spouses of such workers who die.

The county's police union is pushing for a broader measure that would cover any public safety worker who lives in the county, regardless of the state or county agency they work for or where in the state they are stationed.

Watson offered two possible alternative amendments at Monday evening's work session at school board headquarters - one to broaden the benefit as requested by police, and another, more limited amendment that would grant the credits to those who live in Howard but work in counties that reciprocate with a similar benefit. Currently, only Anne Arundel County would qualify for reciprocity.

But no one knows exactly how many people might be eligible or what the cost to the county treasury would be.

"We really don't know what the universe is if we open it up," Watson said.

"The best we can figure, it's not going to be a lot of people," Jeff Meyers, the senior council analyst who researched the issue, told council members.

Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have passed versions of their own since the General Assembly authorized such benefits in 2008. Baltimore County limits the benefit to those who both work for and live in the county. Anne Arundel's bill is broader, including any such worker who lives in the county.

Between July 1, when their laws took effect, and late September, Baltimore County had allowed $113,522 on 60 properties, and Anne Arundel had allowed $55,517 on 24 properties, Meyers said. Both counties have significantly larger populations than Howard.

Dan Besseck, who was replaced as police union president last week by vice president Greg Der, had urged the council to open the benefit to more people.

After the discussion, Besseck, who represented union members at the work session, pointed to the county's Senior Tax Credit program, which offers a property tax discount to people 70 and older with limited income and assets. That was originally expected to have a $1.5 million annual price tag but hasn't cost the county one-third of that in any year.

The county's human resources director, Todd Allen, told the council there are 21 county public safety workers retired on disability, but only five are county residents. Many county public safety workers live outside Howard because of the high cost of housing.

Most council members seemed to be leaning toward the idea of reciprocity, rather than including all public safety workers who happen to live in Howard.

"Generally, my philosophical preference would be to open it up to all jurisdictions, but given the economic situation, reciprocity may be the better way to go right now," said Councilman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat.

Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said he favors the more limited version regardless of the cost, because it seems fairer, and he sees another benefit.

"It helps put pressure on other jurisdictions" to enact similar laws, he said.

Watson said she thinks "opening it up is not that big a risk," but is willing to go along with the majority.

The council then discussed what would happen if another county established reciprocity but later stopped, leaving the ultimate vote on the bill uncertain.

On another issue, members seemed inclined to keep $30.7 million in federal stimulus dollars aimed at the portion of Howard east of Interstate 95, where the county has for a decade been trying to spur redevelopment, and more recently prepare for an expected influx of federal defense workers.

A resolution approving $18.4 million that could be used by private developers and $12.3 million limited to public use is also up for a vote Monday night, but attorney Richard B. Talkin had urged an expansion of the target area to include a swath of older one-story commercial buildings along Guilford Road near the Village of King's Contrivance.

County Finance Director Sharon Greisz told council members the county would rather concentrate the limited funding on the U.S. 1 corridor, which qualifies under federal standards of need based on unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. The money could, for example, help with the cost of a new library in the corridor or help speed up construction of a parking garage for the large mixed-use project at the Savage MARC train station. The money must be committed to projects by Jan. 1, 2011, she said.

Talkin had argued that the Guilford Road, Route 32 corridor just west of I-95 is suffering from a high vacancy rate and also needs help, but Greisz saw things differently Monday night.

"Our concern was, the broader you make it, where do you stop?" There are pockets of need all over the county, she said.

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