A bill intended to forgive Howard County property taxes for six private, nonprofit swim clubs might be in trouble, judging from the dozens of questions raised at a County Council work session by the three members who represent Columbia.
By the end of the 21/2-hour session Monday in the council's Ellicott City chambers, sponsor Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she is planning an amendment that would seek only to treat the six neighborhood pools the same way the Columbia Association's 23 pools are treated for tax purposes, which means that their tax bills would be lowered but not eliminated, as was called for in the original bill.
Asked after the session whether she and co-sponsor Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, had a third vote in favor of the bill on the five-member council, Watson replied: "Did it sound like it?"
Under a state law enacted in 2006, local governments can give tax credits to private, nonprofit swim clubs. Montgomery County has issued them to 55 pools since then.
The six swim clubs in Howard say their expenses, including taxes, keep rising as the facilities age, and their seasonal dues are about as high as they can go.
Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat, repeatedly asked a spokesman for one of the private pools why the county should grant a tax break when the pool has not challenged its property assessments, raised membership fees in three years or operated at a loss. "You haven't exhausted all the other options," Ball said.
If the Columbia Association charges $600 for a non-Columbia family to join its pools, why can't the Watermont Swim Club in Elkridge raise its fees from $475 to $575, Ball asked. Conrad Katulski, the pool's spokesman, said a sharp increase probably would force some families to drop their memberships.
"It's easy to say that, " Katulski said, but a big increase might force dozens of families out of the club, worsening its financial picture. "At some point, we are going to have to raise dues," Katulski said, but "I don't want to price anyone out of the market." Members also must pay a one-time, refundable bond of $600 to join.
Watson said she would remove language from the bill to make it conform with the state enabling law that allows tax breaks for nonprofit swim clubs, but county lawyers say they still don't think the Columbia Association's outdoor pools would qualify.
Watson's original bill included the phrase "a nonprofit entity organized exclusively as a swim club" to describe eligibility, which would appear to exclude the Columbia Association, which has outdoor swimming pools, acres of open space, walking paths and other recreational facilities.
Rob Goldman, CA's chief operating officer, said the Columbia pools cost $2.3 million more to operate than the homeowners association took in for pool memberships last year. The group offers memberships at 25 percent of the regular rate for about 1,500 lower-income Columbia families. The difference is made up by lien fees paid by all Columbia property owners.
West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty noted out that no one in Columbia is clamoring for pools to be closed to save money. In fact, whenever closing a little-used pool is discussed, Goldman said, the opposite reaction occurs.
"That's an amenity we pay for and want," Sigaty said, and all of Columbia's amenities add value to its homes.
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents parts of southeastern Columbia, asked numerous questions about how the private pools operate and are assessed for taxes.
Much of the council discussion centered on differences in the way the CA pools and those outside Columbia are assessed and operated.
"The reality is, the first acre of Columbia's pools are assessed at $40,000, while the first acre of private pools are assessed at $200,000 to $300,000," Watson said, after listening to Howard's state supervisor of assessments, Renee Mierczak.
Columbia pays the county $107,000 a year in property taxes for all 23 pools, while the six private pools collectively pay nearly $53,000. The difference, Mierczak said, is that Columbia's open space land cannot be used for any other purpose, while the private pools are built on land zoned for residential development, meaning that if the pool closed, the land could be subdivided and homes built on it.
Katulski said the Watermont Swim Club paid a total of $3,500 in state and county property taxes a decade ago, compared with $13,340 expected on the bill July 1. That includes $8,639 in county taxes and is based on the sharply higher value of the land.
Watson and Fox contend that the private swim clubs provide a public service not supplied by the county, which operates one public pool on Fels Lane in Ellicott City, and that the tax break would help the aging facilities keep their membership fees in check while allowing more money for maintenance and repairs.
She noted that the county enacted a similar tax break for the Soccer Association of Columbia's complex on Centennial Road, along with credits for other nonprofits that include a therapeutic riding stable, community associations and space rented for religious purposes.
The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.