The long-term fate of the property tax credit for St. Mary's County senior citizens was left unresolved during a Wednesday meeting between the county commissioners and state lawmakers.
Members of the county's legislative delegation in Annapolis met with the Board of County Commissioners to discuss a host of local proposals for the 2006 General Assembly session.
The commissioners recently adopted the credit for residents 70 and older with a household taxable income of $80,000 or less. The effect of the credit was to freeze property taxes at current levels.
The state legislation that authorized the credit included a sunset clause that will end the program after three years. In pressing the delegation to repeal the sunset clause, advocates for county senior citizens proposed creating a committee that would evaluate the effect of the credit on county finances.
"The sunset [clause] really should not have been included in there to begin with," said Pat Myers, president of the St. Mary's chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
The proposal, supported by the St. Mary's Commission on Aging, calls for the commissioners to appoint a committee of one person from each of the commissioner election districts to evaluate the credit's fiscal impact after three years and recommend whether it should continue. The review would be repeated every five years, Myers said.
At the meeting Wednesday night, commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), who opposes the sunset provision, disputed the need for the committee and said it would usurp the commissioners' powers.
"I'm not going to support it," he said. "I cannot take that obligation [of due diligence] that the citizens have placed on me and hand it off to someone else."
The next day, Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's) said he preferred to leave the sunset clause in place.
"I think it's another balance and check in the system, and at this particular time we have no idea what it's going to cost. . . . It could cost several hundred thousand dollars, or it could cost several million," he said. "Can the county afford it, or can the county not afford it?"
An estimate -- which was calculated when the credit was being debated by the commissioners and which included all St. Mary's seniors, not just those within the income limit -- found it would cost the county $164,000 in one year.
Other state legislators from the county said they were willing to consider the proposed review committee. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said he wants to clarify the proposal's language to ensure that a committee would have a standard by which to judge the fiscal impact and that the decision on extending or ending the credit is left to the commissioners.
"I think they . . . came up with a good solution," Dyson said. "I think all we need to do is tweak it a little bit."
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, said he also supports repealing the sunset clause. The Republican lawmaker represents Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
At the meeting, the state and county officials discussed many other community-generated legislative proposals. Several deal with making the community more aware of sex offenders and keeping them away from children. One proposal would require anyone convicted of a sex offense against a minor to be listed on the Maryland Sex Offender Registry. Another would prohibit sex offenders from living near schools and day-care services.
The commissioners unanimously supported such measures, but state legislators said they would not be included in the St. Mary's legislative package because they are better addressed on a statewide level.
Dyson said he plans to draft legislation barring sex offenders from living near schools and day-care centers and to co-sponsor legislation requiring sex offenders to wear electronic devices to monitor their movements.
"The police just don't have the resources to go after all of these violators, and if it could be done electronically . . . you could have one or two people monitor that," he said.
O'Donnell cautioned that though "we all want to keep our children from these sexual predators," laws prohibiting such offenders from living in certain areas might have the unintended consequence of creating higher concentrations of offenders in other areas.
Such bills "will have strong opposition because as a matter of practicality it is hard to implement them," he said.
O'Donnell said that in the coming session he will push for legislation to curb the government's ability to take private land through eminent domain. The issue gained prominence after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June allowed local governments to force the sale of private property to clear land for economic development projects.
Eminent domain, O'Donnell said, should be used "for roads and schools and things that are truly of a public use . . . not for purposes of allowing someone to develop waterfront condos."
Another proposal seeks $300,000 in state bonds to help pay for rebuilding the historic lighthouse on St. Clements Island. The lighthouse, built in 1851, was operated until 1932 and burned down in 1956. A nonprofit group, the St. Clements Hundred, has raised $176,000 for the project, which would cost about $1.25 million.
"It's a good idea. It's part of our history and part of our heritage and something that we really need to do," Wood said.
But Dyson expressed concern about rebuilding the lighthouse because it is on a tiny island that is eroding and because the boat trip there could be dangerous in bad weather.
"A lot of that history is pretty much gone," he said.