Seniors seek property tax relief

March 11, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Richard Pepple worked two jobs for years in order to afford his Smithsburg home.

Now 71 years old and living on Social Security, Pepple says he is worried he and his wife could lose the home they've lived in for 32 years because of property taxes.

"Now my taxes are about higher than my Social Security check is," Pepple said. "They need to give senior citizens some kind of break."

Legislation sponsored by the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly would allow Pepple and other senior citizens to keep property taxes at the rate they are when the homeowner signs up for the program. Payments on any tax increases that occurred after a senior entered the program would be deferred until after the homeowner's death.


The bill is to be heard in committee today.

Pepple, and his wife Bonnie, 68, receive about $1,300 a month in Social Security. After paying their electricity and cable bills, buying food and paying other expenses, the couple has nothing to put toward their property taxes, he said.

"Every year, they've gone up," Richard Pepple said. "It isn't that large, but still at the same time ... it's going to keep going and going."

Washington County's property tax rate is 94.8 cents per every $100 of assessed property value. That works out to about $1,200 annually for Pepple.

He said they can't continue to pay such a large amount living on a fixed income.

The Pepples are seeking a tax break from the state and are searching for relief from Washington County agencies.

"If a person lives in a house for 32 years, at 70 years of age, they shouldn't have to pay no taxes on it," Pepple said.

State help

Washington County caps property tax increases at 5 percent for all homeowner-occupied property, according to County Administrator Greg Murray.

The County Commissioners have not raised the property tax rate for 10 years, but as property values rise, the amount homeowners pay in property taxes also rises. Washington County properties are assessed for value every three years.

Ed Wurmb, founder of the Washington County Senior Coalition, says the bill would help area seniors.

"Even with the (property tax cap), assessments can go up," he said. "There's a cap on how much they would go up, but even that is too much. Most seniors don't see a 5 percent increase in their income every year."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the idea for a property tax freeze bill came to him after he heard from many senior citizens who said they are struggling to pay their taxes.

"We're still hearing (from) a lot of folks, particularly those on fixed incomes, who are having to make some very difficult choices in their lives," Shank said.

Shank's bill would give the Washington County Commissioners the ability to freeze property tax rates for those 65 and older, but would not make the program mandatory.

If the bill passes and the Commissioners adopt its provisions locally, Wurmb said he probably would sign up for the program. But Wurmb said he and many other seniors likely would hesitate because of the provision that requires the increased taxes to be paid back after they die.

A homeowner's heirs could pay back what is owed or a lien would be placed against the property. Wurmb said that likely would limit the number of seniors who would sign up.

"I don't like the idea of when you pass away you should leave a debt to anyone," Pepple said. "To me, that (program) would be like leaving a debt."

Shank said the program is in place in West Virginia.

"For whatever reason, if people don't have heirs, they may want to take advantage of this," he said. "The idea is to have as many choices as possible to reduce that tax burden. I'd like to be able to get the County Commissioners and taxpayers as many options as we can to provide meaningful relief to this problem of skyrocketing assessments."

County opinion

Murray said county officials were trying to determine how much money the county would lose each year should the tax freeze program be adopted locally. The money eventually would be recouped.

County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said an estimate for a previous program was $1.5 million a year.

Aleshire said he was not opposed to Shank's bill, but said he is opposed to the idea of deferring payment of the taxes to "their families who have to account for it."

He said he would prefer to make changes to an existing law in order to provide relief to more people.

"I think some of the frustration I have sometimes is that state legislators often look for ways to create bills that create tax relief at the local level, and at the same time pass down additional costs onto local government," Aleshire said. "You can't have it both ways."

County Commissioner James F. Kercheval said state lawmakers never discussed the tax freeze bill with the Commissioners, so he still has questions about how it would be implemented and what the effects would be.

County Commissioner William J. Wivell said the bill is well intentioned, but he was unsure how many people would want to take advantage of it.

He said he'd prefer a change to the county's tax cap that would extend the cap to nonowner-occupied property as well. Wivell said property owners who do not receive the cap now are passing increases along to their renters.

"Then rents go up for the people who can least afford to pay it," Wivell said. "Hopefully, this would keep rents from going up."

Murray said the Commissioners have not said they want to take any official action to support or oppose the tax freeze bill.

"They haven't said they want to formally oppose the bill because tax relief in any form is good," Murray said.

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