More than 200 older Howard County residents have been granted relief under the county's revised senior property tax credit law, and hundreds more are awaiting word on their applications, according to a county official who said the tax break is likely to cost the county much less than the $1.5 million first thought.
At the same time, two members of a citizens task force that successfully recommended changes to a more generous law passed just before last year's election complained at a meeting last week that the current measure is too complicated for older people -- a contention that county officials disputed.
"There is nothing user-friendly or simple about the process," said Don Dunn, a committee member who strongly favored the first version of the law. He termed the revised law "anti-senior legislation."
Linda Watts, chief of the Bureau of Revenue in the county's Finance Department, told the citizens committee Tuesday that residents returned 730 of the 1,600 applications distributed by the county. So far, 231 residents have received county tax credits under the new law, and other applications are being processed, she said.
In addition, she said, the county has processed 285 applications and put them on hold until the state furnishes information about possible state tax credits for the applicants. The county denied 25 other applications, which were ineligible for various reasons, she said, and 87 people were qualified but had no eligibility left after receiving the state credit.
The state has pushed back the application deadline for homeowner tax credits until Oct. 31, and Watts said the county is following suit.
Watts said she could not yet estimate the cost in lost county revenue, but she said it would be substantially lower than the $1.5 million that budget officials prepared for this fiscal year. "I don't think it's going to hit anywhere near that," she said.
The tax-cut issue surfaced before last fall's election. The County Council approved a bill Oct. 31 that gave homeowners 70 and older with incomes less than $75,000 a year a 25 percent property tax cut and then froze their annual bills until their homes were sold. Howard has a law allowing those 65 and older in the same income bracket to defer annual property tax increases, interest free, until the home is sold.
After the election, the new council appointed a citizens task force to examine the law and come up with changes that would target the relief to lower-income seniors and limit the county's loss of revenue.
The resulting law, approved by the council April 4, now offers a 25 percent property tax cut to seniors 70 and older with annual incomes less than $68,450 and assets under $500,000, not counting their homes. It also removed the freeze provision of the original law, which was declared unconstitutional in an informal opinion from the state attorney general's office.
The county law now also requires those seeking a senior tax break to first apply for available state property tax credits. Any tax cut eligibility left after the state review would then come from county government.
The citizens group has continued to meet and plans to suggest further changes by November. The committee has scheduled a public hearing on the program at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in the County Council chambers.
County workers have sought out older homeowners at the county fair, at senior centers and other places to inform them of the potential tax break and help them fill out the three-page application. Watts said county workers helped 90 applicants one-on-one.
Colin Burke, one of the committee members who think the process is too complicated, said after this week's meeting in the George Howard Building that he believes he is eligible for the tax cut, but he has not applied. "They want me to send in over 120 pages of documentation," he said, including copies of lengthy personal income tax returns for him and his wife.
"They've done a good job. They have a terribly complex situation. I hope we can simplify the entire process," Burke said.
Watts said after the meeting that most applicants have not had any problem applying and that county workers have helped those who have been confused. State assessment officials said they have heard no complaints about processing delays because of the Howard law.
"What we're finding is that it's not a horrific process," Watts said.
Still, Chairman Ted L. Meyerson said the committee wants to hear complaints and suggestions.
"We know that things need to be addressed," he said.