Are you house-rich and cash-poor? Do you live on a fixed income with few assets apart from your home?
If so, you may be eligible for free money -- in the form of property tax relief -- from the state of Maryland and Montgomery County.
Since 1998, the county has supplemented the state's long-standing "circuit breaker" tax relief program, which is designed to cap the tax burden of low-income homeowners, with a similar homeowner's property tax credit.
But Montgomery County Council members were alarmed to learn in March that only about 11 percent of eligible homeowners take advantage of the two programs, which together can provide low-income taxpayers with hundreds of dollars of tax savings. "People are squandering that opportunity right now," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring).
Perez and council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) are backing separate proposals to expand Montgomery's circuit breaker program, and Silverman and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) directed their staff members last month to raise public awareness about the program.
The owner of a house assessed at $187,000 who has an income of $25,000 and assets of less than $200,000 (not including the house) can get a $510 tax credit from the state and $230 from the county, said Timothy L. Firestine, Montgomery County director of finance. The credits would drop the homeowner's property tax bill from $2,242 to $1,502.
The amount of relief offered under both programs lessens as the income level rises. "If your income is above $40,000 you most likely are not eligible," Firestine said.
According to a letter Firestine wrote to the council in March, 2,511 homeowners received a credit from the county in the 2004 fiscal year. The program cost the county $484,764, and the average credit was $193. The recipients' average income was $22,027. By contrast, when the council first discussed the credit in the late 1990s, county officials forecast that it would cost roughly $6 million a year.
In recent years, the level of participation has been dropping. In the 2003 fiscal year, 2,950 county residents received the credit; the year before that, 3,347 homeowners took part in the program.
For Perez, the issue hits home. "It's my mother," he said when asked to describe the people most likely to benefit from the programs. "Home owned free and clear, $17,000 a year in income, no assets -- the only reason she paid her taxes every year was that she had five kids and we paid it for her," Perez said. He hastens to add that the home was in Buffalo, not Montgomery County, lest anyone think he is backing the property tax credit to benefit a relative. She has sold the house and lives in a nursing home.
Perez's first priority is to make sure more residents know about the programs. "We have done such a poor job of getting the word out," he said. The county tax credit covers only the first $150,000 of assessed value, and Perez would like to see that level raised to $200,000. Silverman's proposal is more ambitious and calls for raising the limit to $300,000.
Council members, mindful of the impact of rising assessments and tax bills, cut the property tax rate this year by 1 cent -- about 1 percent -- but Silverman is pushing for tax relief that would offer low-income residents proportionally greater relief. "I think there is a solid block of folks on the council who want a targeted program," he said. The council will hold a public hearing on the Silverman and Perez proposals Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in the council office building.
David S. Weaver, the county's director of public information, said the county would include information about the existing program in its summer mailing of tax bills to property owners and place public service announcements on cable television and inside Ride On buses.
Although council members decried the lack of promotion of the tax credit, they did not appropriate any extra funds to spread the word. "We have a charge to get more information out, and I'm not aware that there was a budget approved to do it," Weaver said.
Perez said the council would consider a supplemental budget appropriation to fund a "sustained campaign."
Homeowners must apply for the program by Sept. 1 by contacting the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, which handles state and county tax credit programs. Applications are available at local assessment offices and most public libraries or by calling 800-944-7403 or 410-767-4433. The applications are also available on the Web at www.dat.state.md.us/sdatweb/taxcredits.html.