Howard County tries to stay in the swim

Our view: Tax credit for private pools, although well-intended, should not be Howard County's highest priority given the fiscal challenges ahead

July 05, 2011

When it's in the 90s and steamy — which is pretty much Maryland's meteorological condition from now until Labor Day — there's nothing more refreshing than a dip in the neighborhood pool. Unfortunately, these are hard times even for the private, nonprofit swim clubs that have been operating for decades.

That's probably why the Howard County Council is scheduled to consider legislation today that would grant a property tax credit to a half-dozen such clubs facing rising expenses and, at least in some cases, a shrinking membership base. The credit would cost the county $52,000 annually, beginning next year.

That swim club finances have been tested in recent years seems clear enough. Many were built in the 1970s and now face significant repairs and capital costs. Some neighborhoods are aging, with fewer children interested in summer swimming, and cash-strapped families are choosing not to sign up for this non-necessity.

Take North Saint John's Swim Club, for example. The Ellicott City club invested nearly a quarter-million dollars in underground pipes and electrical upgrades last year. Members already pay $715 per season to join, in addition to a one-time fee of $800 to cover a refundable bond.

And there is ample precedent for granting the property tax exemption. Neighboring Montgomery County has provided the break for dozens of clubs under authorizing legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly five years ago. Pools provide a public benefit, and their presence spares counties from investing in public pools. (Howard has just one.)

But there are two problems with this. First, the benefit could not be extended to the 26 swimming pools run by the Columbia Association. Maryland's law simply does not extend to pools that, in addition to serving a membership, are open to the general public with an admission fee.

Skeptical County Council members have suggested that's unfair (not to mention politically suspect, as about one-third of the county's voters live in Columbia). But it's also apples and oranges, to some degree as the Columbia Association pays far less in property taxes for each pool because they're restricted from future development, and it has other revenue to supplement their cost.

One possible compromise would be to give a tax break that merely reduces the property tax bills for the six private pools so that they face something similar (at least on a per-pool basis) to those in the Columbia Association.

But the other question that emerged in discussions about the bill is less easily resolved: Do the clubs really need it? In a hearing the council held on the legislation, it became clear that the clubs are not exactly on the verge of collapse. Many could raise fees or, in some cases, expand their membership base to help their finances.

That's why Howard County Executive Ken Ulman says he is skeptical about the effort and has not thrown his support behind it. The county is facing its own financial challenges, and a $52,000 tax break to pools, including some that serve affluent neighborhoods, should not be Howard's top priority.

We agree. It's better to wait, particularly since the state's own budget problems, including a projected $1 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year, could have serious ramifications for the county. It's possible, for instance, that counties may be forced to share in the cost of teacher pensions, a potential multimillion-dollar expense for Howard County.

That's unfortunate for the hundreds of families that are trying to make ends meet — and provide their kids with a chance to swim in the summer — but it's the reality of government finances in the current economy. Better to stay financially afloat than to be caught overextended.

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