Representatives of local veterans organizations gave high marks to the proposed 20 percent property tax credit for people 65 or older who are retired from the military, or have lived in the same house for at least 40 years, but several other people expressed reservations during a County Council public hearing Tuesday evening.
Gordon Koerner, a Joppa resident and Marine Corps veteran, called the residency requirement “discriminatory,” as many people might have lived in the county for 40 years but in different houses.
Citing his prior experience as a Realtor, Koerner said seven years is the average time a person lives in a dwelling.
“It’s discriminatory what this bill is doing,” he said.
Koerner was one of six members of the public who offered comments during the hearing on Bill 17-021, which is sponsored by County Executive Barry Glassman and Councilman James McMahan.
The county executive, along with County Attorney Melissa Lambert and Treasurer Robert Sandlass, testified before the council in support of the bill.
Several representatives of veterans organizations also gave the bill their full support.
“This bill is a much-needed ‘thank you’ for our veterans,” Bob Brown, a member of the Harford County Commission on Veterans Affairs, said. “It goes a long way to ensure Harford County remains a home for heroes.”
Brown said taxes “weigh heavily” when veterans are looking for a place to live, even those younger than 65, who are planning for retirement.
Johnny Boker, also of the veterans affairs commission, said he expects the property tax credit concept will “become viral” and spread across the nation.
“I unequivocally support this bill,” Boker said.
Approximately 3,750 property owners would be eligible, and they would receive an average credit of $550, according to Sandlass. The credit would apply to residential properties with an assessed value of $400,000 or lower, he said.
The number of people eligible could be “on the low side” based on what other counties that have similar credits have reported, Sandlass said.
Harford’s legislation is based on Maryland legislation that took effect in June 2016. HB0898, provides a maximum tax credit of 20 percent for certain individuals who are elderly or veterans.
Similar local credit programs have been enacted in Howard and Montgomery counties, according to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.
Lambert stressed Harford must follow the parameters laid out in the state bill, that those eligible must be at least 65 years old and have lived in the same dwelling for at least 40 years or be a retired member of “the uniformed services.”
“We are not permitted to actually do anything to alter those defined terms,” she told council members.
The county has some flexibility on the amount of the tax credit — it can be lower than 20 percent — and the length of time it is in effect — up to five years, Lambert said.
Harford is going for the maximum permitted credit and time limit, she said.
Councilman Mike Perrone asked if the bill could be amended to include groups other than the two specified, but Lambert reiterated they are “an integral part of the state legislation” and cannot be altered.
“I think it’s good to reward citizens that have paid taxes and lived in the same house … . We want to give back to them and give them a break,” Glassman said.
The county executive touched on Harford’s relationship with its largest employer, Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Army post is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“We do want to recognize the service of those veterans,” Glassman said.
Glassman also urged caution, as the bill is projected to cost $1.9 million in revenue. He said the local economy has in recent years made a “modest recovery” from the recession of the prior decade and is experiencing 2 to 3 percent annual revenue growth.
Glassman said he has made commitments to restore the salaries of Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies and corrections officers, Harford County Public Schools teachers and county employees over the years.
The Glassman administration has invested $22 million in that commitment so far. It has, at the same time, worked to reduce expenses and job positions, improve its budget fund balance and get debt under control with a result of “significant improvements in our balance sheet,” Glassman said.
Glassman said he wants to reward long-time residents and retired veterans.
“We still have to be careful that we do not overreach what our revenue is bringing in,” he cautioned.
The county is making the credit “revenue neutral” by eliminating a 1 percent to .5 percent discount offered to people who pay their property taxes early, generating $1.9 million annually that could cover the cost of the tax credit, according to Sandlass.
The treasurer said $15 is the average value of the discount for homeowner-occupied properties.
“It’s important for it to be revenue neutral; there’s a lot of uncertainty that’s still out there with the revenue situation,” Sandlass said, citing pending federal tax cut legislation that could affect local and state income tax revenue and a potential “structural deficit” in Maryland’s budget.
The credit would take effect July 1, 2018, should the council approve the bill, and the early payment discount would end the following year, according to the legislation.
County officials would get information out about the tax credit online and by working with senior centers, libraries and other institutions, he said. The administration has said those seeking a credit will need to fill an applicant.
Glassman said he has directed the treasurer’s office to make the credit a priority and make staff available to help applicants.
“We’ll make sure it is done right and that our older folks have that kind of assistance to get the application and the supporting documents done,” he said.