Council to vote on tax break

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's older homeowners will learn tonight how much of a property tax break they will get come July. The County Council is scheduled to vote on a bill to change the tax cut approved by the previous council just days before the November election.

A series of amendments that appeared to move opposing views closer together were submitted Monday by council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, and Greg Fox, a western county Republican.

The law, approved Oct. 31, calls for a 25 percent property tax cut on July's bills for homeowners 70 and older with annual incomes less than $75,000. Their county tax bills would then be frozen until the house is sold. Critics have called the law an election gimmick that would unfairly reward a small group of taxpayers and sap county revenues. The county allows seniors older than 65 to defer property tax increases until their homes are sold.

In January, the current council appointed a citizens committee to study revisions. The group recommended last month removing the freeze, lowering the income eligibility ceiling to $54,760 and adding a $200,000 asset ceiling, not counting the home and retirement accounts, to exclude people with great wealth but little cash income.

Ball and Fox introduced amendments to Council Bill 10, the current measure, which would allow people with incomes around $70,000 to qualify for relief. Ball has also suggested liberalizing the asset test.

"I think the committee was almost right there on the income level," Ball said about the higher ceiling of five times the federal poverty standard [about $68,000] first debated by the group. It later voted to recommend a ceiling four times the federal poverty level, which would be $54,760 this year. That is the ceiling in Council Bill 10.

Ball also submitted an amendment to allow applicants to qualify with up to $500,000 in assets, excluding their primary home and life insurance. The bill features a $200,000 asset test, excluding the home and retirement accounts. The change would help those seniors without 401(k) or other formal retirement savings accounts, Ball said. His changes would boost the cost in revenues from $1.5 million to $1.7 million annually.

Another amendment would require an annual report by Sept. 30 detailing how many people had applied, been approved and the program's cost.

"Things are getting closer, and, as I stated after the public hearing, I'll be working toward compromise," Fox said. Fox is the council's only Republican.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she is loath to change the senior tax credit but has not decided how to vote. The two other members, Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa, have indicated support for Ball.

Applicants for the county credit would simultaneously have to apply for relief under the state's circuit-breaker program for all lower-income homeowners, under another Fox amendment.

County finance officials would wait to see whether an applicant qualified under the state program, then make up any county tax difference under the local law.

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