Howard council limits tax cut for elderly

The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County Council voted last night to limit a sweeping property tax cut for older homeowners enacted one week before last fall's election.

The changes were designed to reduce a tax benefit for the elderly that is more generous than those available in most Maryland counties.

The law, approved Oct. 31, gave homeowners 70 or older a 25 percent reduction in their July 1 county property tax bills - and then would freeze the bills until the house is sold - if their annual income is under $75,000. It was sponsored by the two Republicans then on the five-member council, one of whom, Christopher J. Merdon, was running for county executive.

Last night's vote lowered the income eligibility ceiling to $68,000 for a family of two and removed the freeze on tax bills. Also, to qualify, applicants now must have less than $500,000 in assets, not counting their home and life insurance, and must apply for state "circuit-breaker" property tax relief before the county law's provisions would kick in.

"We are a team. Everybody had to give up a little something," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat. The five-member council's lone republican, Greg Fox, and Ellicot city Democrat Courtney Watson, voted against the final bill.

Merdon lost the county executive's race to Democratic Councilman Ken Ulman, and the newly elected council created a citizens committee in January to study the tax break. The committee was split, but a majority recommended that the cuts be scaled back and aimed at lower-income homeowners.

After weeks of sometimes heated debate, the law was tightened last night, although not without objections.

"The bill [passed last year] was very simple and straightforward. Any compromise is going to make people feel they need an attorney to apply," said former Councilman Charles C. Feaga, one of the original sponsors. Another advocate, Don Dunn, 78, has called the revisions "anti-senior legislation," although some impetus for limits came from members of the county's Commission on Aging.

Proponents of last year's bill contended that despite Howard County's 5 percent cap on annual assessment increases, older homeowners need a break to stay in their homes. "Leave [the current law] in place for a year and see what happens," tax-cut champion Pat Dornan said.

Critics argued that targeting one small group for a big tax cut in an election year was a hastily conceived political gimmick that excluded other needy people while costing the county millions in lost revenue.

The last council voted unanimously to approve the measure. However, two of those members - Ulman and Ball, now the council chairman - at the time called for more study and possible changes before the law was applied to tax bills.

Howard County already allows seniors 65 and older with $75,000 or less in annual income to defer any county property tax increases, interest free. That relief measure was adopted in 2005.

To take effect, the legislation passed last night must be signed by Ulman, who has said he supports the direction of the changes.

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