Pool volunteers perched on the edge of their seats and others in green shirts supporting Watermont Frogs held their hands to their faces Thursday as the County Council voted down a tax-relief measure for nonprofit swim clubs.
At the final council hearing before a monthlong break, three of the five members voted against a bill that would have established a tax credit for a half-dozen nonprofit swim clubs, most of which were built in the 1960s and need improvements. But all five council members agreed that the issue warrants further study.
"We had hoped to get relief," said Mike Arseneault, director of Watermont Swim Club, who noted that the club's baby pool is in desperate need of updates. "It's very outdated. We get complaints about it all the time."
Arseneault said it would cost more to study the matter further than it would have to adopt the tax-relief measure.
"The issue is equity," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican. But she said the other three council members saw the bill as favoring the six community pools over the Columbia Association pools.
Under a state law enacted in 2006, local governments can give tax credits to private, nonprofit swim clubs. Watson said the Columbia Association should have benefited from the tax-relief measure but legally could not be included in the bill.
The Columbia Association pays the county $107,000 a year in property taxes for all 23 pools; the six private pools collectively pay nearly $53,000 because of higher assessments.
In a statement released just before the meeting, County Executive Ken Ulman said, "There are wide discrepancies in the financial and physical conditions of the half-dozen older nonprofit swim clubs in Howard, and a program that does not take those differences into account would be flawed and incomplete."
But instead of supporting the bill, he called for further study and possibly a grant program or a recreation preservation easement program that would allow community pools to transfer development rights to help lower their assessments.
Several council members, including members who voted against the bill, recognized the service provided by the swim clubs, noting that Howard has only one public swimming pool, at the Roger Carter Recreation Center in Ellicott City.
But Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "What we learned was, the law requires taxes to be paid on all properties." She noted that homeowners associations are not exempt, that the costs are passed on to the individual homeowner and that the value of HOA property is included in the value of the house.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, argued against the tax credits, saying the tax relief would not be a fiscally sound move, given the tough economic times and other needs in the county.
Fox contended that the legislation was similar to a tax break for the Soccer Association of Columbia's complex on Centennial Road and other nonprofits that include a therapeutic riding stable, community associations and space rented for religious purposes.
That tax break "was done in a different economic time," Terrasa said.
Cris Packard, treasurer of Forrest Hill Swim Club, said after the meeting that she was "grateful for Courtney Watson and for all of her efforts with this bill" and pleased to hear that Ulman is interested in reviewing the issue.
"Hopefully, fairness and a favorable outcome prevail," Packard added.