County officials are urging residents to explore whether they qualify for a property tax credit that could reduce their annual property tax bills.

The program, which offers relief on state and local taxes, is open to homeowners who have an annual household income of less than $35,000, assuming the net worth of all the occupants of the address is less than $200,000.

The amount of the potential credit is based on a person's income, and the deadline for applying with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation is Sept. 1.

Since 1975, the state has offered tax credits to low-income residents who need help paying their tax bills. In 1998, the County Council decided to supplement the Homeowners Property Tax Credit Program so more Montgomery homeowners could be eligible to apply.

But county officials say the program is being underutilized. Last year, only 2,500 Montgomery homeowners participated, even though county officials estimate as many as 25,000 were eligible. On Monday, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) launched a campaign to promote the program.

"A few minutes of your time could translate into a savings of quite a bit for you," Duncan said at a news conference announcing the campaign, which will include advertisements in English and Spanish.

Silverman said the tax credit will help lower-income residents offset increasing property tax assessments. "We've got lots of Montgomery County residents who are house-rich and cash-poor," he said.

Hayden Christie, a retired Bethesda resident, said the tax credit has been saving him about $600 a year. "I don't know how one could live in this county if the program was not in existence," said Christie, whose home has been assessed at just under $300,000.

Ambulance Fee Redux

In the coming weeks, Duncan is planning to submit a new proposal for charging an ambulance fee to Montgomery residents, and resistance to the idea on the County Council, which shot down ambulance fees last year, may be softening.

The council's public safety committee voted against a plan last year to charge residents several hundred dollars for each ambulance trip -- a fee that many Washington area jurisdictions charge.

Officials say that ambulance service would not be denied if someone can't pay and that Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance in many cases will pick up the tab.

The new proposal, likely to be submitted early next month, would propose that much, if not all, of the money generated by the fees go toward buying equipment for the fire and rescue service, officials said.

Last month, council members heard a grim update from fire officials on the state of disrepair of many of the county's fire engines and other apparatus. The need for new equipment is reason enough to implement a new fee, said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the council's public safety committee.

"The fire apparatus needs to be upgraded, no question about it," Andrews said. "There's no question that's the strongest argument" for the ambulance fee.

Andrews opposed a proposed ambulance fee last year. The public safety committee did not approve the measure and sent it back to Duncan for revision.

"Last year's proposal wasn't ready for prime time," Andrews said. "Time will tell whether this year's proposal is."

Duncan Keeps Quiet

Duncan was conspicuously silent last week as county officials delivered gushing tributes to the outgoing managers of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Council members lauded General Manager John R. Griffin and his deputy, P. Michael Errico. Staff members at the giant water-and-sewer utility expressed regret at their departure. Even the board members who forced out the two managers acknowledged their "extraordinary performance."

But there were no words of praise from Duncan.

He did thank the agency's board for ending its bitter six-month dispute with the departing managers. The board, which tried to oust Griffin and Errico in February, voted last week to pay each more than $250,000 to step down.

Duncan did not, however, single out the outgoing managers for recognition.

Contrast that with this statement from Silverman: "John and Mike have kept their eyes on the ball. They have stood up as professionals against those who would use WSSC for pure patronage and those who would put their own personal agendas before the public interest."

Duncan declined to explain his lack of laurels for the outgoing managers.

"The statement speaks for itself," said Duncan spokesman David Weaver.

Some observers say Duncan's reticence is politically necessary. When Duncan spoke out in support of Griffin this year, he came under fire from labor and civil rights activists who opposed Griffin. Since then, Duncan has tried to keep his distance from the turmoil at WSSC, fearing the political mess might jeopardize his likely run for governor in 2006.

Nonetheless, some county officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Duncan, said the executive should have thanked Griffin and Errico.

"Most of the time when people leave," a county official said, "you say nice things about them."

Preservation Program Is No. 1

Montgomery County has the nation's best farmland preservation program, according to a recent nationwide survey.

The July-August issue of the Farmland Preservation Report found that Montgomery has permanently protected 61,394 acres from development. The survey attributes the county's top ranking to its transfer of development rights (TDR) program, which allows developers to trade a set number of rights to build in the county.

"Montgomery County's TDR program has always been an anomaly," according to the report. "Only a handful of TDR programs nationwide are regularly active, and a countywide program with designated areas for sending and receiving development rights is decidedly rare."

The cost of the transferable rights has skyrocketed in recent years. The rights are selling for $25,000 to $35,000, according to the survey, more than twice as much as last year. "The transfer activity is likely the nation's hottest," the report said.

Maryland had a total of five counties in the report's top 12 -- Montgomery, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Frederick -- more than any other state.

Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) wants to institute an ambulance fee to pay for new fire and rescue equipment.