With the Sept. 30 deadline for county residents to pay their property tax bills fast approaching, the St. Mary's County commissioners debated this week ways to implement a tax credit for senior citizens.

Legislation passed this year by the General Assembly allows the commissioners to freeze the amount of property taxes paid by county residents 70 and older with a "limited income." But implementing the tax break has been hampered by three main issues: defining "limited income"; specifying what tax year will be used to set the cap; and dealing with an application deadline set to expire today.

"I think, here today, we need to make a decision," Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) said Tuesday. "The perception out there is the Board of County Commissioners have been sitting on this and . . . haven't made a decision. That's the perception."

Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) said he wanted to pass a resolution that could have solved all three issues: setting a dollar figure to define limited income; setting the 2004-05 tax year as the base year; and extending the application deadline until Dec. 31.

"I think if you do this as an administrative process today, it gives everyone direction," McKay said.

But County Attorney John Norris told the commissioners that they can use a resolution to interpret legislation but not to amend it. He recommended that the commissioners follow the normal procedure for amending legislation, including scheduling a public hearing.

"I think you're treading on awfully sensitive legal ground," said Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown). "I think we're kind of making up things as we go along."

Three years ago, the St. Mary's Chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) began urging the commissioners to provide tax relief for seniors living on fixed incomes who are facing rising property tax assessments.

The group wanted a tax credit for everyone older than 70 regardless of income, President Patricia A. Myers said.

"We're glad something is being done," she said. "It will help some individuals; it just won't be as across the board as we had hoped."

Mary Ruth Horton, chapter chair of NARFE, said she was "sure our county commissioners will take care of what they need to take care of to avoid" losing the tax credit this year.

On the first issue, Raley suggested that the household income cap to be eligible for the credit should be $80,000. He said he chose this figure because the median family income in St. Mary's is $74,900. The board members generally agreed that the 2004-05 tax year should be used as the base year to cap the property taxes. And there was no opposition to extending the deadline.

County Administrator George Forrest said he was concerned that the tax credit had not been budgeted for the current fiscal year.

"I respect your concern," McKay said. "But we do have a significant amount of reserves I'm certain will cover this consideration."

The commissioners agreed to proceed with a public hearing to discuss the changes. It is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sept. 13 at in the commissioners meeting room at the government center in Leonardtown.