County Councilwoman Courtney Watson said at a public hearing Monday night that she would support including the Columbia Association's 26 swimming pools in her bill to forgive local property taxes for six private, nonprofit Howard swim clubs — if it is legally possible.
The question of Columbia's pools has complicated Watson's otherwise straightforward attempt to use state enabling law to give six older, financially struggling community pools a break on county property taxes to help them stay open.
She contends that the pools provide a public service because the county operates just one public pool, at the Roger Carter Recreation Center on Fels Lane in Ellicott City. But the pools were built decades ago and require increasingly expensive maintenance that is driving up membership fees as some pools are losing members amid the recession.
A previous County Council unanimously approved a similar tax break sponsored by then-Councilman Ken Ulman for the Soccer Association of Columbia athletic complex on Centennial Road. That bill, like this one, did not benefit facilities owned by the Columbia Association.
"I am more than willing to fight for Columbia," Watson said during the hearing to Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a former CA board member and Columbia resident, who told the council she opposes the current bill as "unfair to the Columbia Association and residents who pay [Columbia] assessments."
Columbia Association President Phil Nelson had testified earlier that his group opposes the bill as written.
"We oppose tax credits for specific uses such as private nonprofits, especially when the county's budget uncertainties are very real," he told the council. But if the credits are going to be granted to six private swim clubs, he said, the Columbia Association pools should be included.
Watson, the bill's prime sponsor, said informal advice from the county's office of law indicated that state law would not allow inclusion of the Columbia Association pools. Watson and Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican and the bill's co-sponsor, noted that CA pays $107,000 in county property tax on 26 pools compared with the combined $52,828 paid by the six private swim clubs, which shows that the Columbia Association already benefits from a lower assessment on its property.
"Oh, my goodness," Januszkiewicz replied. "Howard County gets so many benefits from the Columbia Association," including miles of pathways, open spaces, recreational facilities and the pools.
Nelson said Columbia Association pools hire 700 to 1,000 youths each year for summer jobs and that the group loses money operating the facilities.
Watson praised the homeowners' association and what it does for Howard County.
"The Columbia Association does a wonderful job," Watson said. "I learned to swim at the Running Brook pool in Wilde Lake."
She said her bill does not specifically exclude the Columbia Association pools but the state law that allows local governments to grant the tax break might.
Nelson said it is Watson's bill and not state law that includes language limiting the benefit to "a nonprofit entity organized exclusively as a swim club."
Watson said she'd like the county's lawyers and those from the Columbia Association to meet and discuss the issue. She is seeking a ruling from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, and she raised the possibility of changing the state law if need be.
Most witnesses Monday night testified in support of the measure.
Doug Dudek, president of the Hammond Park pool in North Laurel, said his club is $8,000 in the red this year despite charging each family $495 per season, plus a one-time refundable bond of $850 to belong. Several of the clubs, including Hammond, say membership has been declining in the past several years.
Greg Dahle, vice president of the North St. John's Swim Club on Marydell Road in Ellicott City, said the nonprofit spent $225,000 on underground pipes and electrical upgrades last year. Members pay $715 a season per family in addition to a one-time $800 refundable bond.
He said land for the pool was donated in the 1960s, when his parents bought a house on a one-acre lot in the area for $25,000. Now it costs more than that to replace an old water slide at the facility, he said, and the pool is borrowing money to keep up with maintenance.
According to his research, he said, the Maryland General Assembly unanimously enacted enabling legislation for the tax breaks in 2006, and counties with far more public pools than Howard are using the law to help private swim clubs.
"We are begging people" to join because of the need for more revenue, said Noel Hall, president of the Atholton Swim Club. "We haven't had a waiting list for four years."
Conrad Katulski, representing the Watermont Swim Club in Elkridge, said the pool dates to the 1960s and members had to spend "well over $300,000" when the pool house burned down in 2007. He said the pool offers reduced-price membership of $150 during August but needs more money for improvements.
The council could discuss the bill further at a work session next week before a scheduled vote July 5, or it could table the measure for a month.
Funeral home parking
Despite the debate over pool taxes, the largest group of about 45 people at the hearing came to support a bill that would tighten parking rules for funeral homes.
Howard now requires 10 parking spaces for each viewing room and one space per employee but does not require any spaces for homes with large chapels or meeting rooms. But ever-larger funeral homes threaten to overwhelm the county's zoning rules on parking, last changed in 1977, according to bill sponsors Fox and Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat.
Their bill to require one space per 50 square feet of public space in a funeral home arose out of a dispute between the Donaldson Funeral Home's plans to build a large facility on Route 108 in Clarksville and the opposition of the St. Louis Church next door.
No one at the hearing spoke in opposition to the bill.