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Effort to Ease Senior Citizens' Tax Pain Tripped Up

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page C05

Shirley Sandage can consider herself wealthier and wealthier as her home in Frederick appreciates in value year after year.

Month after month, however, she has felt poorer and poorer.

At Frederick City Hall on Thursday, a large crowd awaited debate on a proposal to cap property taxes at 105 percent of a home's assessed value. But a half-hour before, the mayor struck the legislation from the agenda, saying it would be illegal to enact. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

For one thing, her townhouse on Toll House Court comes with an annual city tax bill of about $1,700, an amount that she expects will rise as her home's assessed value increases further and the cash-strapped city hunts for revenue. Sandage, who has a fixed income, also pays $1,000 a month for prescription drugs.

Tack on county taxes and it's easy to see why Sandage, who is 77 and living on Social Security, frets that she is "house poor." But she also knows others who have it worse: a friend who wears mittens at home so she can keep the thermostats low, and others who must sometimes choose between groceries or prescription drugs. Some have moved across the state line to Pennsylvania or to their children's homes.

"I feel fortunate that I am able to remain in my home," she said. "I don't know what the future will bring for me."

But Sandage and others are pushing for change. Building on a survey of senior citizens that they conducted in Frederick and Frederick County last year, Sandage and others have decided to form an advocacy group for Frederick County's elderly. They plan to name the group after the survey, "Senior Voices of Frederick County, Maryland."

"You dig into your assets, and it's frightening because you don't know where it's going to end," said Eva Moore, a 78-year-old widow who participated in the survey. "You don't know how long you're going to live and whether you're going to have enough money."

Many elderly people live on fixed incomes and investments tied to interest rates that, in recent years, have been low, while their taxes and grocery bills have been moving higher. The booming growth in Frederick and the surrounding county that has transformed the farming community into a bedroom community also has speeded the process.

Moore's worries often were repeated in responses to the survey, which was completed in September and sponsored by the county's Commission on Aging, the Senior Recreation Council and other agencies. Sampling the opinions of 1,250 people 50 and older in the city and county, the survey reported that many enjoy living in the area but also feel as if their problems and needs are overlooked.

Many urged their governments to consider property tax breaks targeted to the elderly, particularly to alleviate financial problems that stem from the declining health of an elderly homeowner or the homeowner's spouse, or in exchange for their volunteer work. They also urged local governments to build more affordable housing.

"It doesn't matter where you live. The taxes on houses are going out of sight. The taxes are as high as a house payment," said Jan Brossart, 62, who lives in a single-family home on Bear Den Road.

The Frederick Board of County Commissioners considered a proposal last month to seek authority from the General Assembly to offer a tax credit to senior citizens, but the proposal by Commissioner Bruce L. Reeder (D) was defeated.

On Thursday, Brossart and other senior citizens turned out at a Board of Aldermen meeting to discuss tax relief in the city. The measure, put forward in late September by Alderman David G. Lenhart (R), would use a provision of the state's Homeowners Property Tax Credit program to freeze property tax assessments for all owner-occupied residences.

Lenhart said the board and mayor have presided over a 17 percent tax jump since 2002 -- not counting the compounded impact of applying the city tax rate to steadily rising assessed home values. So Lenhart proposed using a provision of the Homeowners Property Tax Credit law that grants tax credits for any amount over 110 percent of the previous year's tax assessment.

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