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Swartz plan to limit seniors' tax liability deserves a look

April 28, 2000

The Washington County Commissioners continued their struggles over the upcoming year's budget last week, voting down three separate proposals to increase taxes, even as Commissioners' President Greg Snook acknowledged that yes, there will probably be a tax hike of some sort.

What got little attention - and which deserves alot more discussion - was Commissioner Paul Swartz's proposal to exempt those over 65 from any tax increase.

Swartz's proposal surfaced last month during another budget discussion, in which he said that he was not opposed to tax increases, but that he would like to spare those over 65 from them. County Treasurer Todd Hershey said it could be done, but only by giving seniors a tax credit after the hike.

Commissioner William Wivell said in last week's meeting this would be unfair, because a break for seniors would come at the expense of other citizens. Allow us to present another side to this argument.

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A tax cut that favors only seniors would certainly impose a greater burden on those who are not seniors, but there is no tax code that we're aware of that doesn't favor one group over another. Take, for example, the home mortgage interest deduction, which favors homeowners over renters. Or exemptions for child-bearing and child-care, which favor parents over those who choose not to have children. Even the Maryland tax code provides a credit, popularly known as the "circuit breaker" to soften property tax increases for the elderly.

Now that we've established that it's possible, we come to the next question: Is it affordable? If, for example, seniors provide half the tax revenue in the county, then exempting them from any proposed hike would mean getting in only half what the increase was intended to yield.

But 65-and-over citizens have also been paying taxes longer, and if they're still working, it's likely to be at some post-retirement part-time job, giving them less ability to pay. Given their long history of support for local government, and their reduced incomes, it's only fair that this idea get more discussion that it's had so far.

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