Lots of people in St. Mary's County want to give the elderly a break on their property taxes. But they haven't come together on how to do it.

Some want to help the neediest, capping taxes for elderly people with an income below a certain level. Some want an across-the-board break for people over a certain age. And some want to make sure the break doesn't become a huge burden for future budgets.

If some county leaders have their way, St. Mary's would become a retirement haven, drawing well-to-do seniors who might otherwise pick Florida or the Carolinas.

Commissioners are trying again this year to cap property taxes for homeowners 70 and older, making the proposal a priority for the 2005 session of the General Assembly. The county's older people have loved the plan, but legislators haven't -- in the last legislative session, the bill stalled in committee.

At a meeting last week between the commissioners and the county's delegation in Annapolis, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's) asked the commissioners whether they had made any changes to the bill that failed last year.

The text is the same.

He suggested that they specifically address the concerns of senators on the budget and taxation committee and asked whether they could expand and simplify a tax-credit program instead.

Everyone's taxes keep going up, said Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's). It clearly is more of a burden for the elderly, he said, so that would be the place to start. But he also said: "When you put a tax cap on for one group, the rest pick it up. That's a given -- that's not Roy Dyson's thinking or anybody else's, that's how it works."

He said he has received letters from residents wondering why rich people in St. Mary's should receive a tax break just because they're a certain age.

Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said: "I've had a lot of people come to me objecting to means-testing and just as many people saying, 'I'm able to pay my taxes, and I'm willing to do that.' . . . Means-testing does provide it to people who really have a need."

But Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said members of the county board don't want to change the measure they endorsed in February to make income a consideration "because the seniors are dead set against it."

At a meeting last week, one resident stood up and said, "We don't want any means-testing!"

Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) said a tax break just for the neediest would be better than nothing. But he thinks the county would be missing an opportunity by limiting the tax program.

"Affluent seniors will be looking to buy retirement homes in places that have tax benefits," McKay said. He sees a growing population of residents who are a local government's dream: "They'll bring a wealth of disposable income to the community" and fewer of the costs associated with growth. "You don't have to look for school sites. You don't have to worry about crime increasing or major transportation initiatives -- they're not going to work." Retirees tend to volunteer a lot, too, he said.

"We want to create a situation where affluent seniors will come to St. Mary's to retire," McKay said. "We can turn our back on them, let them take all their money to Florida, to North Carolina, to South Carolina. . . . We can be the beneficiary or let others be the beneficiary."

That's one vision of the future. Others see another possibility: that the cost of the tax program to the county, which increases year after year, will become a burden.

As the proposal stands, when homeowners turn 70 their property taxes would freeze at the rate they are at that year. The cost to the county over the next 10 years would be about $13.5 million.

"It's a great idea if it's workable," said Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's). "I don't think we want to look at putting the county in the hole several million dollars five or 10 years out down the road."

Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) wondered whether there could be a sunset provision.

"There is a sunset clause," McKay said. "It's put on by the good Lord when you pass away."

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson said residents have asked him why wealthy people should receive a property tax break just because they are a certain age.