Tax-cut law task force makes a discovery

As they prepare for a public hearing Tuesday night, members of the citizens task force studying Howard County's new senior tax credit program have discovered something that could drastically change the debate over whether the maximum income for eligibility should remain at $75,000.

The tax-cut law, approved Oct. 30 by the last County Council, reduces by 25 percent the property tax bills of homeowners ages 70 or older and then freezes their bills for as long as they own their homes.


But the committee learned last week that the vast majority of people with incomes of less than about $35,000 would get more benefit from the state's tax credit program, called the circuit-breaker. That is important because it means fewer Howard County residents might qualify for the local senior tax cut, which in turn means it would cost the county less in lost revenue.

County officials said Thursday that they will require residents to apply for the state program, which affects only state revenues, before asking the county for relief. Anyone who qualifies under the state program would not get the county tax cut. The state program offers relief to homeowners of any age who have annual incomes of less than $60,000, and assets, not counting their homes and retirement accounts, of more than $200,000. The tax relief is applied to the first $300,000 of a home's value.


"It's something we didn't realize," said Ronald Weinstein, the county budget director. "We were surprised to see how many people would be better off with the circuit-breaker."

Donald Dunn, a retiree who is a committee member, said that the news about the state program means that perhaps as few as 1,200 senior homeowners in Howard County would qualify for the new senior tax cut. That means the revenue loss to the county would be far less than the possible cost of up to $4 million originally estimated.

Still, Weinstein cautioned that no one will know the true impact of any tax-cut law until it has been in effect for a year. Another factor to consider, several committee members said, is that the number of residents older than 70 is predicted to increase drastically by 2030, multiplying the potential amount of lost revenue.

Committee members plan a series of midday visits to county senior centers Tuesday, and they have scheduled a public hearing at 7 o'clock that night in the County Council chambers to get the views of the public. Ted L. Meyerson, the task force chairman, said the group will begin voting on possible changes to recommend in the law in the days after the hearing.

The county also has a tax deferral program for seniors ages 65 and older that allows them to postpone paying all property tax increases, interest-free, until they sell the home, which Dunn pointed out is in effect an interest-free loan. That law carries the same $75,000 income ceiling, but only 84 homeowners have enrolled, partly because some seniors object to having a lien on their homes for the taxes owed.

The committee is to recommend any changes in the tax-cut law by Feb. 15 -- enough time to allow the new County Council to change the law before tax bills go out July 1.

Campaign finance

In 2006, an election year, candidates were not required to file campaign finance reports between January and August, before the primary election. But reports filed this month in Annapolis represent the third campaign report filing since October. The latest reports cover the period from Nov. 23 to Jan. 10.


Not surprisingly, there's been very little fundraising, though county politicians are making plans for campaign events before the General Assembly ends April 10, when ethics rules allow state legislators to begin raising money again. Old debts must be paid, and incumbents often want to begin amassing a political war chest that will discourage potential challengers.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and several County Council members are planning events for March, they said.

"We have some debt," Ulman said. "Generally, we'd like to make sure we're focused on working with our supporters."

Ulman, a Democrat who defeated Republican Christopher J. Merdon, reported raising $5,850 during the past two months, but after expenses has $4,716 in cash, and debts of $4,188.

Merdon reported having $29,806 left in his kitty, though he raised only $2,676 since the November election. Merdon said after the campaign that his political career is likely over, but his leftover cash is more than enough to seed a new effort. He did not return a reporter's calls last week.

Four of the five council members said they probably will have campaign fundraising events before April. West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty, who reported $3,840 on hand, is the exception.


Those who do not plan to seek office again can maintain their accounts for up to eight years, doling out money for various purposes under Maryland law, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the state elections board. They can give money to their party central committee, to the local school board, educational nonprofits, charities, or higher education institutions. They can also return pro-rated amounts to contributors, or give money to other candidates, DeMarinis said.

All the council members reported having small amounts of cash left.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, had $6,910. Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, had $1,414. Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, reported having $3,996 left. And Greg Fox, a western county Republican, had $663.64.

By comparison, Tony Salazar, Watson's unsuccessful Republican council opponent, reported having $1,593 left, while Gina Ellrich, Ball's GOP opposite, had $192.43 left.

Among legislative candidates, the story was similar.

State Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat who beat incumbent Sandra B. Schrader, reported having $8,165 left, but owes himself $45,000 that he lent his campaign. Robey said he plans a fundraiser after the General Assembly ends. Schrader had $14,000 left.


Freshman Del. Guy Guzzone reported having a healthy $39,788 on hand, far more than most other county legislators. Del. Elizabeth Bobo showed $34,385 left.

For the record

In an article in Sunday's Howard County Sun about property tax cuts, one element of a state tax credit program was incorrectly described. To be eligible for state property tax relief, a homeowner must have an annual household income under $60,000, and assets worth less than $200,000, not counting the applicant's home and formal retirement accounts. The Sun regrets the error.