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Council votes down swim club tax credit in 3-2 vote

The County Council voted down a bill Thursday, July 28 in a 3-2 vote that would have given the county's six nonprofit swim clubs a property tax break.

Though the bill is dead, the issue is not. County Executive Ken Ulman wrote a letter to the council just hours before its vote saying he would create a working group to further study the issue and come up with alternative solutions. He said the working group would develop solutions for the council to consider in advance of the budget cycle, so something could be implemented by Fiscal Year 2013, which is when the tax credit would have taken effect.

Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson introduced the bill, co-sponsored by Fulton Republican Greg Fox, to give nonprofit swim clubs a 100 percent property tax credit. Representatives from the six eligible nonprofit swim clubs had lobbied for the tax credit, arguing that they provide recreational outlets not offered by Howard County, which operates one public pool.

Swim club representatives say their cash-strapped clubs need the money to help with much-needed capital improvements.

In voting against the bill, council Chairman Calvin Ball and members Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty, all Democrats from Columbia, said they do not feel the tax credit is the best way to help the pools, and they would like to spend more time trying to find a comprehensive solution.

"I'm extremely disappointed," Conrad Katulski, president of Watermont Swim Club in Elkridge, said about the council's decision. He added that "$50,000 (the amount of revenue the county would have lost if the tax credit had passed) is not going to break the bank of Howard County."

Katulski also said he doesn't believe Ulman's working group will end up helping the swim clubs.

"I feel that's just another way of blowing us off," he said.

But other swim club representatives were more optimistic.

"I'm pleased that Mr. Ulman is willing to do further analysis with a task force (and) hopeful that a fair and helpful solution will prevail," Cris Packard, treasurer of Forest Hill Swim Club in Ellicott City, said.

Greg Dahle, vice president of administration at North Saint John's Swim and Tennis Club in Ellicott City, also said he is hopeful Ulman and the council will find a more comprehensive solution, but noted, "honoring the tax credit would have been a good initial gesture to show they were truly interested in helping us."

Dahle was the person who requested Watson introduce the bill, which was enabled by a state law passed by the General Assembly in 2006.

Much of the debate regarding the credit centered around the different ways pools in the county are assessed. Watson and Fox say the differences are unfair, but the other members are not as convinced.

"I think where we are in disagreement is if there's an equity argument," Terrasa said.

The Columbia Association's 23 outdoor pools are assessed at a lower rate because they sit on land designated as open space, which cannot be developed. The six nonprofit pools are assessed at a higher rate because their property could be sold and developed. Homeowner association pools, meanwhile, are not separately assessed because they are assumed in the value of the community.

"We may have lost this battle, but at the end of the day I believe the county government will recognize the inequity in the tax situation," Watson said.

Meanwhile, Watson will work to amend her 2008 neighborhood preservation bill to help the swim clubs. The original legislation authorizes property owners in the county's older residential neighborhoods to sell the development rights to their unused land to prevent them from building new housing that is incompatible with the existing units. An easement is then placed on the land to prevent future development.

Expanding the bill to include swim clubs, Watson said, could help the clubs in two ways. The clubs can sell the development rights — worth about $50,000 per right — to the land they haven't built on and use the money to pay for the capital improvements they need. In addition, once that land is placed in an easement, the state property tax assessors will value it at a lower rate than if it were developable, and the clubs will save money on their tax bills.

The proposal would have to go before the planning board before the council can vote on it because the bill involves amending the county's zoning regulations. Watson said she hopes to have the proposal to the planning board sometime in August.

But even if the council passes the amendment sometime this year, Watson said it won't help the swim clubs until the real estate market recovers, and there are developers building new neighborhoods that want to buy the rights.

Hilltop redevelopment approved

Despite the failure of the swim club bill, the council did pass several other pieces of legislation July 28. The legislation, which all received unanimous approval, includes:

• resolutions on Phase I of the Hilltop Apartment Complex redevelopment — the last needed for the Ellicott City project to begin. Housing Commission officials said construction on the mixed-income residential community should begin by the end of the year. One resolution authorizes the $36 million financing, which includes $25 million in tax-exempt housing bonds issued by the state, as well as low-income housing tax credits and various loans. The other approves a payment in lieu of taxes agreement, which is standard for most affordable housing developments.

• a resolution adopting the guidelines that the Department of Planning and Zoning will use to revise the General Plan — the policy document that guides development in the county and is updated roughly every 10 years.

• a bill authorizing the county to enter into an installment purchase agreement so it can add 186 acres of land, located off Route 32 in Sykesville, to its agriculture preservation program. The easement will cost $5.9 million to acquire, but with the twice-yearly interest payments set up through the agreement, the county will be paying nearly $7.5 million.

• a resolution to designate the Savage MARC station and the area surrounding it as Transit Oriented Development. The zoning of the area was changed to TOD in 2006 to make way for a mixed-use project involving private and public parking and commercial and residential development, but the formal resolution will make it easier to acquire funding for the project.

• a bill allowing the county's finance director to extend the 0.5 percent property tax discount given to residents who pay their property tax bills by July 31 in cases where bills are mailed after the July 1 target date. Finance officials said they managed to get the bills out by July 1 this year, but the option to extend the discount to up to 30 days after the release of the bill will be helpful if they ever run into any problems.

• legislation giving the Howard County BRAC Office authority to receive additional grant funding for a full-time employee that would help families moving to the area because of the Base Realignment and Closure or other growth at Fort Meade.

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