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July 28, 2008

Seniors and the Silent Treatment

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

2005 was a big year in Maryland for advocates for senior citizen issues. Maybe a more accurate way to say that is that 2005 should have been a big year for senior citizens.


In 2005, two Maryland counties, St. Mary's and Carroll, enacted enabling legislation in the General Assembly to allow the governing bodies of those two county governments to create a property tax credit program.


In each case, at the request of the local governments, the General Assembly authorized the property tax credit, without specifying the details and procedures. The locals were granted the ability to set their own criteria, the primary specification related to age. In Carroll County, the age was set at 65, in St. Mary's the minimum age was 70. Both had a requirement for means-testing, as it should be.


The idea was this: The statewide Homeowners Tax Credit Program, better known as the circuit breaker tax credit, was designed to allow lower or fixed income homeowners access to tax credits funded by the state budget. In 2005, several counties, including Frederick, added a local supplement. This program certainly helps, but since anyone can qualify based on income, the credits are principally used to assist lower income-scale homeowners to deal with their annual property tax bill.


Senior citizens, who struggle with a fixed income stream while facing ever-increasing costs for drugs, groceries, and utilities, are incredibly burdened by rising assessments and the impact on property tax values.


It used to be a scare tactic to claim that a senior citizen might be forced from their home due to property taxes, today it is a regular occurrence.


Along came the senior's knight in shining armor in local government, former County Commissioner Bruce Reeder. No spring chicken himself, Bruce seized on the findings of a report from Senior Voices, a coalition of activists concerned with the treatment of Frederick County's seasoned citizens.


Bruce advocated for the passage of a local enabling bill to allow the Board of Commissioners to grant a local tax credit for seniors, one that went far beyond the aforementioned circuit breaker.


Bruce's idea was one where the senior, once they qualified, could avoid paying property tax for as long as they lived in their primary residence. Those taxes would be payable in the event the property ultimately changed hands, but the senior citizen who owned the land/home would be freed from the annual burden of property taxes.


For a senior who also happens to live in a municipality, we might be talking about several thousand dollars a year in potential tax avoidance.


So Commissioner Reeder went to work. He spoke at county commissioner meetings. He spoke at fire halls, senior centers, restaurants; just about anywhere he could find a group of citizens and a microphone. He gave an outstanding presentation to the Frederick legislative delegation, one of the best I've ever heard in support of a bill.


The delegation included his bill in our packet for the 2006 session. Not surprisingly, so did several other counties. St. Mary's and Carroll had set the bar, and everyone else was clambering to catch up.


There were so many local bills designed to do the same thing that the House Ways and Means Committee lumped them all together into one big statewide policy bill. Once Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's pen hit that paper, every single county (23 and the City of Baltimore) and all 157 municipalities were granted the full and unconditional authority to enact a local property tax, in whatever form and structure the locals were comfortable with.


So, you can just imagine the rush to extend this benefit to our life-long taxpaying residents, right? Care to tender a guess as to how many of our 12 municipal corporations in Frederick County have enacted this tax credit? How about guessing the date that the county commissioners instituted their own version?


As to the first question: None, nada, zippo. As to the second: The commissioners have yet to take up a local ordinance to allow senior citizens to avoid property taxes.


Remember, the only thing the bill specifies is that the credit can only go to taxpayers 70 years old and over with limited income. It doesn't spell out how much money, whether it applies to all or part of the tax bill, how to determine eligibility, or even how, if, or when it gets paid back.


Local officials are negligent in their obligation to lighten the burden on senior citizen who have paid, their entire life, for all of the bounty we enjoy in this county. Whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, our local elected officials have a responsibility to take appropriate action to protect our seniors from the burden of having to sell their homes to avoid the burden of local taxation.


The state legislature has provided them with a tool to deal with that problem. How long will it be before they take advantage of that tool? How many seniors will miss the chance to enjoy this benefit or sell their land to avoid the burden of increased assessments and rising tax rates?


To review the bill and the Fiscal and Policy note, visit these links:


House Bill 288:


Fiscal Note on HB 288:


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