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County Council hears from swim clubs who want property tax break

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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.

"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.

"It's what an average position costs the county government," Wacks explained.

County Executive Ken Ulman said he is keeping an open mind about the bill, but noted "these are still tough times, so if we're giving tax credits there has to be a good reason for it."

Though it has more than three times the number of pools, CA only pays $107,000 in property taxes, slightly more than double the total amount the six nonprofits pay. The reason for this, tax assessment officials said, is because in addition to its membership-only facilities, such as its pools, CA owns open space and common ground that is not assessed because it is open to anyone in the community. The nonprofit swim clubs are assessed for all of their property, which can include clubhouses and tennis facilities.

If passed, the tax credits would not apply until fiscal year 2013.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bill July 5. It is co-sponsored by council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican.

Updated funeral home parking regulations

While the swim club bill was the most controversial proposal discussed at the hearing, a bill that would update the county's funeral home parking regulations drew the largest crowd, with roughly 45 supporters in attendance. Only two of the supporters testified; no one testified against the bill.

Co-sponsored by Sigaty and Fox, the bill would change the parking regulations from 10 spaces per public viewing room to 1 space per 50 square feet of floor area in public rooms, which in addition to viewing rooms also include chapels and reception rooms. The regulations were last updated in 1972.

One of the main flaws with the existing regulations, Columbia resident Cathy Stefano said, is that they do not account for chapel space. With viewings, people come and go so less parking is needed than for chapel services where everyone is at the facility at the same time, she said.

The need for new parking regulations arose because of Jay Donaldson's proposal to build a large funeral home on slightly more than three acres of residential land off Route 108 in Clarksville. St. Louis Catholic Church, which neighbors Donaldson's site, has opposed the proposal in county zoning proceedings, represented by attorney William Erskine.

"This is not legislation intended to target any funeral home operator," Erskine said in his testimony before the council. "The proposal here as been very well thought out and has been very reasoned."

Donaldson and his attorney, Sang Oh, attended the hearing but did not testify.

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