More than 400 Howard County homeowners have requested applications for the county's new property tax deferral program in what officials expect will be a popular way for the elderly, handicapped and low-income to put off their payments.
In the five weeks since property tax bills containing notice of the program were mailed, the county has received 415 requests for applications, said Sharon Greisz, county finance director. Of those, 63 applications were submitted - all by senior citizens - and 43 have been approved so far, with an average deferral of $137.
"We thought we'd have a big response because it's a program that makes sense," Greisz said. "It will quickly become a sizable, more meaningful amount."
Under the program approved this spring, homeowners who are older than 65 or disabled, have lived in their homes for more than five years and have incomes under $75,000 can defer property tax increases interest-free until they sell their homes.
Greisz noted that a deferral the first year would be compounded each year, plus new annual deferrals. Over a decade, a $100 deferral would add up to $5,500 the homeowner would not have to pay, provided the home remains unsold.
Applicants must provide copies of their income tax returns and driver's licenses. State assessment records will reveal how long they have owned their homes.
Although Howard homeowners are protected from sudden one-year property tax increases by the county's 5 percent assessment cap, seniors on fixed incomes worry about the cumulative effect of increases.
Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the county's Office on Aging, said several seniors have remarked to her that "it may not make a big difference to them, but a lot of people may need it. I hear people reflect on friends and neighbors."
Don Dunn, a 76-year-old West Friendship retiree who was shocked in recent years by the escalation of home prices, said he was among the first to apply. He got an approval notice Tuesday.
"I'm getting a whopping $133.64" off an annual county property tax bill just over $2,800 for his 40-year-old, two-story frame house on about an acre.
But Dunn, who serves on the county's Commission on Aging, said he is happy to participate. "The key here is, assuming I live any particular length of time, it adds up," Dunn said.
He and his wife know their home likely would fetch more than $600,000 in the county's heated real estate market, but he said they have no plans to downsize or sell. They have too much of an emotional and physical investment in their neighborhood and their house of 40 years - the gardens, grounds - and the friendships.
And he noted that a no-interest loan is a rare thing.
"It's a no-lose situation," Dunn said. "If they carry me out of here, what do I care anyway?"
County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who, with Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, suggested the program, said he is gratified by the response.
"I think that for the first month, that's a great response," Guzzone said, though "this isn't a program for everybody." The county gets a lien on each house for the amount owed, and Greisz said one applicant refused to sign the paperwork for that.
Merdon agreed that the response has been good, but he said the county needs to publicize the program more.
"Most of the seniors I talk to don't even know the program exists," Merdon said, recounting conversations he has had this week at the Howard County Fair.
Madachy said the program will be advertised through county senior centers, senior programs and in next month's senior newsletter.
It might take several years to educate the public, Guzzone said.
Original estimates were that several thousand residents might be eligible for the program, Greisz said. Though Sept. 1 is the official deadline for applications for this year's taxes, "we're going to be very lenient" about the deadline this first year, she said. Those who apply too late can still sign up for a deferral to begin next July.
To request an application: 410-313-4076.