Habitat for Humanity will receive tax forgiveness in the city of Aberdeen, after the city council passed the somewhat controversial measure 4 to 1 on Monday.
The ordinance gives a 100 percent city tax credit for real property owned in Aberdeen by the charitable organization, provided that Habitat for Humanity intends to relinquish ownership in the future, the property will be transferred to a private owner and the organization submits a written report to the city by April 15.
Councilwoman Ruth Elliott voted against the tax break legislation, while two of the other council members who voted for it defended their support.
"I believe Habitat for Humanity does a good job; I have nothing against Habitat for Humanity," Elliott said. "My problem is 100 percent tax exemptions…It kind of turns me off, and it's not about Habitat or how much money it can eventually save the city."
Elliott said she is "from the old school" where people should put forward their own money to do something.
"I'm not for tax credits, I tell you very honestly and straightforwardly. I really have a problem with that," she said.
The other council members, however, spoke strongly in support of the tax break.
City Manager Doug Miller explained why Habitat was singled out for such favorable treatment.
"Some folks have said why don't you give it to this organization or that organization," Miller said.
"We just cannot as a local government arbitrarily give tax breaks. That power has to be specifically authorized by the General Assembly," he continued, explaining a bill was passed last year that enables local governments to give tax breaks to Habitat.
Councilman Bruce Garner said the properties Habitat fixes up are ones the city's public works department would otherwise be spending time maintaining.
He also noted the properties' values increase significantly when they are rehabilitated.
"When you take it from $30,000 to $40,000 to $150,000 to $160,000 on the tax rolls… this is a no-brainer," Garner said. "This does not cost the residents of the city a dime. It helps bring more revenue into the city."
Garner also angrily denounced some people who he said made personal attacks against him on his personal website, as well as by e-mail.
He said an online article claimed that one corporation is getting tax credits that other groups or residents cannot get. Garner said that is not true.
"They'll go on these blogs and Patches and make statements that are not true," he said. "When people make statements about my integrity and my family and my business, it affects me."
Contrary to what some think, Garner said, he is not being controlled by business interests.
"I have no friends in business and development," he said. "I'm sick and tired of hearing this rhetoric."
Garner also challenged those who criticize him to actually come to a public hearing. One resident, Karen Heavey, spoke out against the tax credit bill at a prior hearing.
"If they don't have the guts to do that, shut up. I'm tired of it," he said. "I have a business here in this county, I have been here 30 years, and I have a very good reputation…If we'd done such a bad job the first two years, they had a chance to come and put us out of the office. I didn't see anybody step up to oppose us."
Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck also said Habitat's properties are non-performing, tax-wise, and can only be improved under the charity's program of rehabilitating older dwellings and constructing new ones for lower income people to move from being renters to becoming homeowners.
"It's either vacant or in such condition that it's really no value so it really has no tax base anyway," she said. "It really is to our advantage to take a piece of property for which we are getting very little. There is accountability in the bill and there is a cap in the bill, and those were concerns."
Landbeck suggested Habitat's work could also help Aberdeen's many homeless residents.
"There's been an issue in our city with the homeless and we've had comments, 'Why don't you do something about it?' And then almost in the same breath, 'Don't charge us,'" she said. "I think the homeless certainly is a problem. To me, Habitat for Humanity is the perfect solution. People who are in extraordinary circumstances but need housing and are willing to work for that housing deserve it, and this, I believe, is the perfect solution for us to help that homeless problem."
Other council actions
The council also introduced an ordinance Monday that would no longer require a council member to represent the city on the economic development commission, the Heritage Trust or the parks and recreation board.
Also during the meeting, Landbeck recognized Army Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, who is retiring from the Army and who commanded Aberdeen Proving Ground the past two and a half years.
"For the last three to five years, we have enjoyed such a wonderful and open relationship with the Aberdeen Proving Ground," she said. "The time has come when we are saying goodbye to most of them and it's really been sad. It's like we are losing good friends."
Landbeck attended Friday's change of responsibility ceremony, where Justice stepped down as commander of RDECOM. She called Justice "just a remarkable figure that you will never forget."
Landbeck said she also wants to continue "busting myths" about the city. She called out those who have complained about high water bills in Aberdeen.
She said she compared water and sewer bills for the other municipalities.
An average water bill recently was $115 for Bel Air, $56 for Havre de Grace and $31 for Aberdeen.
"When someone tries to tell you that ours are the highest and it's the mayor's fault, it's not true," she said.
Mayor Mike Bennett also announced he has also been appointed to the National League of Cities Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Advocacy Committee for 2012, which helps develop NLC federal policy positions on issues like crime prevention, substance abuse, disaster preparedness, domestic terrorism, court systems and gun control.
Garner reminded the audience that today (Wednesday) is the last day for residents to register for the city's recreation council youth baseball program.
He said the person to contact is Kenny Wilson, 410-272-4510, or just parks and recreation.
"We had a great opening last year and the parents really got in and helped, and we really need it again this year," he said.