As a citizens committee wrestles with whether to recommend changing Howard County's new senior property tax-cut law, two sharply divergent views have emerged - a dynamic emphasized in testimony at a series of meetings this week.
On one side are people like Jerry McKindles of Ellicott City, who worries that because catastrophic health expenses and rising prices for everything from food to energy can financially flatten people over 70, forcing them out of their homes, older homeowners need all the help they can get.
On the other are those including former state Del. Virginia Thomas and her husband, Charles, who see the election-year law that cuts county property taxes 25 percent and then freezes the bill for people earning less than $75,000 as a failed political gimmick that threatens future local revenue needed for government services to the truly needy in tight budget years to come.
In between are a laundry list of ways to change the law, ranging from lowering or raising the income eligibility limit to eliminating the freeze aspect, making the tax break work on a sliding scale, or requiring an asset test to eliminate people with low incomes but great wealth.
After conversations with groups of people at senior centers and libraries Tuesday, and at a public hearing in Ellicott City that night, the committee discussed the competing ideas yesterday and may vote on recommendations next week.
A new wrinkle has appeared in an advisory opinion from Assistant Attorney General Bonnie A. Kirkland. In a response to a query from Del. Guy Guzzone, she said that freezing property tax bills is illegal because it effectively freezes assessments, a violation of a constitutional principle requiring uniform taxation throughout Maryland. The attorney general's office has offered a similar opinion on Maryland's assessment cap system, but it has never been challenged in court.
Chairman Ted L. Meyerson said he found the largest group at the western county's Glenwood Senior Center, and another large group at the Ellicott City center, but just a handful or fewer at other gatherings in Columbia, Savage and Elkridge.
"Almost universally, nobody understood it, or knew much about it," Meyerson said.
At Tuesday night's hearing, McKindles and others offered their ideas at a formal public hearing.
"As we're getting older, the cost of your tax bill is going up," the 76- year-old told the committee. "If you're over 80, they bump up your Blue Cross. At $3,000 or $4,000 a year for long-term-care insurance, it can just wipe you out very quickly."
He suggested using the taxable net income on tax returns to determine eligibility instead of a flat gross income figure. Others suggested a sliding scale of tax cuts to give a bigger break to those with lower incomes and smaller cuts to those with more.
But Charles Thomas, a 35-year Columbia resident, said the tax break program was "ill conceived" and ought to be repealed.
"There's no demonstrated need. There's no evidence that [rising property taxes] affect seniors any more than others," or that seniors move out of the county because of taxes, he said at the hearing Tuesday night in the George Howard Building.
Virginia Thomas agreed, adding that a well-intentioned program could hurt seniors by keeping them tied to their old homes longer than is beneficial.
"What this legislation is doing is very harmful," she said. The idea of helping seniors should be to keep them healthy and able to function independently wherever they live, not confine them to their houses, she said. And low-income renters get no help from the tax cut yet face the same financial pressures, she noted.
"Don't ask us to pay for someone else's taxes and let their children inherit the house without paying back the [tax] money," she said, drawing some hostile reactions from the 35 people in the audience.
The committee was asked by the new County Council to recommend any changes in the percentage or the income limit by mid-February so changes could be made before property tax bills go out July 1.
Howard County has another tax program for homeowners 65 and older, with incomes under $75,000 a year, that allows them to defer any property tax increases until they sell their homes. That program has proved unpopular, however, because the county obtains a lien on the home until the debt is repaid.
Paul Bordonet of Clarksville told the committee he favors the deferral concept because it is revenue neutral.
"It wouldn't matter how much a person made or what their age was," he said, because the county eventually would get all the taxes deferred.
Angela Beltram, a former County Council member who led a campaign against a series of rezonings along U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, said she "favors the existing law as written."
She has three widows in their 80s as neighbors, she said, and if they sell their homes and move, younger families with school-age children are likely to replace them, costing the county far more than seniors do.
Richard Wafer, 79, of Waverly Woods, said he sold his home and moved to a smaller retirement condo three years ago, but pays as much in property taxes as he did before. But his retirement income is $45,000 a year.
"You only have so much to live with, and these expenses keep going up and up and up," he said.
"I love Columbia, I don't want to leave. I will die in my house," vowed Froydis Beckerman, 65, a 37-year resident of Thunder Hill who favors the tax cut.