Tax-cut study plan is faulted

The Baltimore Sun

When the County Council passed a property tax cut for senior citizen homeowners just before the November election, the panel drew criticism for pushing through a political gimmick with little scrutiny. Now, efforts to re-examine and possibly change the law are prompting similar complaints.

If the council approves a resolution next week creating a citizens task force to study the law's potential effect, the group would have until Feb. 22 to propose changes in time to affect tax bills mailed July 1. If the committee is made larger, as some groups want, that would make the task harder.

Three of the five new council members say they have serious doubts about the time constraints.

The law, unanimously approved Oct. 30 by the former council, gives homeowners age 70 and older with annual household incomes under $75,000 a 25 percent tax cut, and permanently freezes their property tax bill. Estimates are that it will reduce county revenues by $2 million to $4 million annually.

But, to study the law's effects and recommend changes in time to affect tax bills that go out July 1, the committee would have to finish its work before Feb. 22, the new council was told at a work session Tuesday. That means a committee would have just over a month to organize and complete its work.

"Do we feel the committee can do a thorough job in the time allotted? What is the goal of this?" asked Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. She later asked what the disadvantage would be to letting the law take effect and then study the first year's results.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who voted for the tax- cut bill and is the resolution's sponsor, said his goal is "to evaluate the effect of the tax credit and see how we could make that tax credit more effective." The downside, he said, "is we go through an entire year and we could make it a little bit better" before the first bills go out.

Two other council members, west county Republican Greg Fox and west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty, also had doubts about the time limits on the committee if the Ball resolution passes Jan. 2.

"The original concern was five County Council members rushing through this, but now we're talking about rushing through in four weeks," Fox said about the task force.

Linda Watts, chief of the county's Bureau of Revenue, explained the time problem to the council members. Her office must have all the information for annual tax bills by about June 1 to get them calculated, printed and mailed on time. That means, under council rules, changes in the tax credit law must be submitted by Feb. 22 for introduction at the council's March 2 meeting to be voted on in April. Council Administrator Sheila M. Tolliver told the council that legislation approved by the County Council takes 61 days -- until June in this case -- to take effect.

Another complication involves the composition of the task force.

Several county groups, including the Howard County Citizens Association and the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for social service agencies, want to be represented on what is proposed to be a 13-member committee. Fox also suggested that the Howard County Taxpayers Association might be included. Ball expressed no problem with that, but Sigaty noted that the larger the group gets, the harder it will be to conduct the study quickly.

"If we have more members, you need more time," said Sigaty. "A lean, mean committee could get things done very quickly. Once you open it up, it is no longer lean and mean. I'll stand for quality."

Watson continued to express strong doubts: "The county passed a bill. It seems a little disingenuous to come back and say we're going to change everything."

But Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, noted that there was discussion of a re-examination of the law even as the former council passed it. Ball had prepared two amendments but did not introduce them because they would have required at least a one-month delay in the final vote, and Oct. 30 was the previous council's final meeting of its four-year term.

Ball's amendments would have reduced the impact of the bill to between $500,000 and $2 million in revenues by excluding people with assets of over $200,000, not counting their home, land, retirement accounts and personal property. A second amendment would have created a sliding scale of benefits instead of a flat 25 percent. Under that scenario, senior homeowners with incomes of $20,000 or less would pay no property tax, while those with higher incomes would pay more.

Howard County also has a program that allows senior homeowners 65 and older with annual incomes less than $75,000 to defer any property tax increases interest free until their house is sold, but that requires a lien on the property for the taxes owed, which many seniors do not like.

The League of Women Voters, which would have two members on the task force if it is approved, is pushing for more time.

"I think our league members want time to thoroughly address the questions," said Grace Kubofcik, a co-president of the league who attended the work session.

But Ted L. Meyerson, a county Commission on Aging member who raised questions about the law while it was being considered, said he feels a task force can work quickly.

"I would like to see the task force go forward," he said, because many questions remain. Why is the income limit $75,000 or the tax cut 25 percent, for example, and how many county residents would benefit or even be eligible for a benefit under the law? A committee could quickly gather information on those types of issues, he said.

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