A proposal to give nonprofit swim clubs in Howard County a tax break was praised as a needed boost by swim club representatives but criticized as unfair by Columbia Association members at the County Council's public hearing Monday, June 20.

"Nonprofit swim clubs have essentially relieved the Howard County government and taxpayers from providing these services," said Greg Dahle, vice president of administration at North Saint John's Swim and Tennis Club in Ellicott City. "This bill could really help a lot of struggling nonprofit swim clubs."

Dahle was the person who asked the council introduce the bill, which allows the county to grant a 100 percent property tax credit to nonprofits that are organized as a swim club and that use their facilities exclusively to provide a recreational outlet for a local community. The bill is enabled by a state law that was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 2006.

However, the bill would not benefit the nonprofit Columbia Association, which operates 23 outdoor pools and four indoor pools in Columbia. And while council members said language in the enabling law prevents the county from granting CA the credit, Columbia residents still argued that the exclusion was unfair.

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"That's the reality of the bill," Cecilia Januszkiewicz said. "If you can't have it apply to every part of the county, than it shouldn't apply to any part of the county."

Columbia Association President Phil Nelson, while saying CA opposes tax credits for specific uses, such as for private nonprofits, argued that the association should be included in the swim club bill because it supplies "a significant share" of the county's pools and its outdoor pools "operate at a significant loss."

Nelson said that CA and its lawyers disagree with the Howard County Office of Law's interpretation that the wording of the state enabling legislation excludes CA, which provides other services in addition to its pools and recreational facilities.

The state law says the county can only extend the property tax credit to a nonprofit swim club "that uses its facility exclusively to provide a recreational outlet for a local community."

Council member Courtney Watson, the Ellicott City Democrat who proposed the bill, said she would like the county attorneys to sit down with CA's lawyers and explain their interpretations of the state law. If a consensus cannot be reached, she said the county will have to contact the state Department of Assessments and Taxation for a final ruling.

"If there was a way to include the Columbia Association, like I've said from the beginning, I'd be willing to entertain it," Watson said.

In addition to Dahle, representatives from Hammond Park Pool in North Laurel, Atholton Swim Club in Columbia, Watermont Swim Club in Elkridge, and West Howard Swim Club in Mount Airy also testified in support of the bill.

"I think this would be a huge benefit to the survivability of all of our pools," Hammond Park Pool President Doug Dudek said.

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, asked the swim club representatives if they offer discounted memberships or other assistance to low-income individuals who wish to join.

Only Dudek said his club offers some type of assistance; the other club representatives said they would consider such an idea.

Sigaty said offering opportunities for low-income individuals to join is one of the sticking points that may get her to vote for the bill.

"They only become a true asset to the community if they are willing to serve everyone," she said.

Sigaty said she also was concerned that some of the swim clubs have bylaws that say they have the right to approve or deny memberships.

The clubs say the bylaws are in place so they can screen applicants to ensure they are not convicted felons or sex offenders, and that they have never had to turn anyone away. But Sigaty worries the wording of the bylaws would allow those clubs to turn members away for any number of reasons.

"Clubs have done that in our history," she said.

County budget director Ray Wacks, who conducted a fiscal impact study on the bill, said it would cost the county $52,000 in lost property tax revenue from the six eligible nonprofit swim clubs.