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Property tax bills offer relief for some

April 14, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Some Washington County residents could get relief from rising property taxes under two bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly during the 2009 legislative session, which ended Monday.

It came down to the wire for one such bill, sponsored by Washington County's delegation in Annapolis, which was the last bill to be passed by the House of Delegates before the session ended Monday at midnight.

"Another minute gone by, and that bill would have met its maker," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

The bill allows Washington County Commissioners to freeze property tax increases for those who are 65 years of age and older. Payments on the increases would be deferred until after the death of the homeowner and his or her spouse.

The amount of the tax increases the homeowner would have paid if not enrolled in the program would be paid back either by that person's heirs or through a tax lien on the property at an interest rate of no more than 3 percent.

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Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a number of bills Tuesday, but not the tax relief bill. A spokesman said O'Malley will hold two more bill signings in May.

"The goal going into this legislation was to try to find a creative means to assist seniors with escalating property tax assessments," Shank said. "This job is not complete. I will continue my work on behalf of all taxpayers on the issue of rising assessments."

Ed Wurmb, founder of the Washington County Senior Coalition, says that while the bill will help local seniors, he has talked to many who are apprehensive to have a lien placed on their houses or saddle their heirs with a large tax bill after their death.

However, Shank says the program, if approved by Washington County Commissioners, would not be mandatory for seniors.

"The bill with the lien attached to the property is not very popular with seniors," Wurmb said.

Instead, many favor a bill that also passed the General Assembly this year that would give seniors who own their home a property tax credit that does not have to be paid back after death.

That bill was co-sponsored by Shank and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington.

Wurmb said he would be happy seeing either property tax bill in place in Washington County, where seniors are burdened by increased property taxes that can be a struggle on a fixed income.

The tax relief bill sponsored by Washington County's delegation also would allow landlords of any age to apply for the Homestead Tax Credit.

Maryland officials ordered a 10 percent cap for qualifying homeowners, but individual counties could lower the cap if they chose, as Washington County did by capping taxable assessment increases at 5 percent.

Washington County's tax rate is 94.8 cents per every $100 of assessed property value.

The Homestead Tax Credit currently does not apply to nonowner-occupied homes.

Shank has said there is an expectation that landlords would pass on their savings to renters.

However, Vance Creech, 73, and his wife, Elisabeth Creech, 69, say neither of the property tax bills that passed this year will help them. The Creeches live at Fahrney-Keedy Home & Village, a a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in Boonsboro.

Though residents in CCRCs, like Boonsboro's Fahrney-Keedy Home & Village, have all of the same qualities that make homeowners eligible for the property tax increase cap, they do not benefit from the Homestead Tax Credit protection.

Under a bill sponsored by Shank, CCRCs would have been eligible for the Homestead Tax Credit.

Vance Creech says he still plans to ask the Washington County Commissioners to include CCRCs in the program without legislation.

Shank said he is hopeful that Washington County Commissioners will offer both property tax options for seniors that passed the General Assembly this year.

"It's high time for them to diligently work to provide that relief for the senior community," he said.

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