Saturday, November 05, 2011

Rockville Maryland Senior Services and Taxes

Rockville Maryland is also having an election and The Rockville Patch had this article on one of their Candidate Forums in which they discussed Senior Services and Taxes. Some interesting points, most of which shows how out of touch some of the candidates are - so it isn't just here.

Candidate Forum Focuses on Senior Services and Taxes

'Aging in place' and a homeowners tax credit were among the topics at the Senior Center.

By Sean Sedam

The eight candidates for City Council and two candidates for mayor spent about two hours answering questions from moderators and from audience submissions during the forum sponsored by the Rockville Senior Citizens Commission on Tuesday at the Rockville Senior Center.

Senior issues and talk of a city tax credit for homeowners dominated a forum for candidates for Rockville Mayor and City Council hosted by the Rockville Senior Citizens Commission on Tuesday at the Rockville Senior Center.

The forum was the seventh of eight held this campaign season leading up to Tuesday’s city election.

Candidates were asked questions from the audience and questions that they received before the forum.

Among the questions received in advance, candidates were asked how they would make Rockville a community for “aging in place” by Baby Boomers after they retire.

Seniors are being “forced out of their homes because of the incredibly high real property tax,” said Les Francis, a candidate for City Council. If elected, Francis said, he would eliminate the city’s real property tax and replace it with a piggyback income tax, linked to the state income tax.

Francis said he also would reform the city’s tax system so that renters would pay city taxes as well as homeowners.

“If you are a renter, you don’t pay a nickel for the operation of city government,” he said.

Councilman Mark Pierzchala, who is seeking reelection, later took issue with that characterization, saying that renters pay rent and that their landlords are taxed by the city as commercial property owners.

Retaining seniors requires the city to create pedestrian-friendly streets and building codes that make homes handicap-accessible, said Richard Gottfried, a candidate of the City Council.

“And we have to make sure that our transportation grid is more useful for seniors,” he said.

The city should also consider senior-friendly concepts similar to Beacon Hill Village in Boston, a membership organization often mentioned by former Councilwoman Anne Robbins where seniors receive access to programs and services that allow them to remain in their homes, Gottfried said.

Another idea is the partners-in-care concept that is used across the metropolitan Washington area. “One person picks up the groceries, the other person fixes the leaky faucet,” Gottfried said.

John Hall, a City Council candidate, said that keeping taxes and fees down is especially important for seniors who are often on fixed incomes and are sometimes caring for parents or children.

“I think on the City Council, one of the things that we can most do is hold the line on taxes and fees,” Hall said. That includes restoring the $100 tax rebate for homeowners, he said.

Transportation is key, said Tom Moore, a City Council candidate. The moment when seniors have to give up their driver’s license is often when they also have to move out of their homes, he said.

Providing buses is something the county and the city’s Senior Center do well, Moore said.

Expanding transportation services “is probably the single most important thing that governments can do to allow people to age in place,” Moore said.

Councilman Piotr Gajewski, a candidate for mayor, cited a 2006 task force report that recommended the city’s top goal be to “enable senior residents to ‘age in place’ in their Rockville homes insofar as is possible.”

Gajewski said that as a council member he has tried to make that happen by working with Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio, his opponent, to hold down taxes. This year, Gajewski said, he tried to keep taxes down by being the lone vote in favor of keeping the $100 homeowners tax rebate in the city’s fiscal 2012 budget.

(During budget negotiations, Marcuccio proposed reducing the tax rate to 28.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, but found no support for the proposal from the council.)

“If I’m elected mayor and Mr. Hall is there with me on the council, we will get it done so that [the tax rebate is] restored,” Gajewski said during the forum.

The Senior Center provides “wonderful services” to those “who are able-bodied enough to get here,” Marcuccio said. The city could foster neighborhood partnerships like those mentioned by Gottfried, which could augment the city’s senior services, she said.

Marcuccio said that she was responsible for first bringing the $100 tax rebate to city taxpayers.

“If we could do it for seniors—just seniors—I’d vote for it,” she said.

Councilwoman Bridget Donnell Newton, who is seeking reelection, responded to claims that she and Marcuccio voted against funding the Senior Center.

“We didn’t vote against the senior center. We voted against taking out debt,” she said.

Rockville must partner more with Montgomery College and others to bring more cultural activities and push for expanding state tax credits for homeowners so that more seniors and low-income people are eligible, Newton said.

Virgnia Onley, a candidate for City Council, said that as a senior on fixed-income, “senior issues are a priority for me.”

Onley said she would “continue to fight for access to services for seniors,” for senior housing, “for the rights of seniors to stay in their homes,” and for tax breaks and relief for seniors.

Councilman Mark Pierzchala, who is seeking reelection, said the city must maintain its senior services. He challenged candidates who called for keeping taxes and fees in check.

“In order to do that we must hold the line on spending,” Pierzchala said. “And it’s been extremely difficult to hold the line on spending, to make choices.”

In order to hold spending down, taxpayers must support council members who make choices such as the recent decision to lease out the city’s RedGate Golf Course, he said.

Accessing information about city services is important for seniors, said Dion Trahan, a candidate for City Council. But access is hindered by the city leaving vacant a staff position that would provide a point-of-contact for senior services, he said.

“Seniors currently have no one at City Hall to educate them or point them in the right directions,” he said.

A virtual citizens’ forum also would allow seniors’ voices to be heard, Trahan said.

Homeowners tax credit

A question from the audience noted that “it seems everyone running for office opposes the elimination of the $100 Homestead deduction, yet it passed.” The questioner asked why it was eliminated and when would it be restored.

The tax credit was eliminated to balance the budget, said Onley, who added that the credit is more important for seniors on fixed incomes. “Hopefully it will be back in soon,” she said.

The council balanced the budget in May without knowing that the city’s finance report for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2011 would show a $4.2 million surplus, Newton said.

“Had we known about that money when we were making our budget choices, I think we might’ve made some different choices,” she said.

It would have cost the city about $1.5 million to retain the credit in the fiscal 2012 budget. It had been offered in each of the previous four years.

Newton reiterated that the city should push to expand eligibility through the state credit.

“We need to, in my opinion, couple on with the state and increase the eligible criteria for the state homeowners tax credit so that the people who need it get it,” she said.

Employee retirement remains “the big elephant in the room,” Pierzchala said. “Every year we’re spending about $700,000 more than the previous year to fund the retirement,” he said.

“If you’re not helping make choices to cut spending, then I’m not going to raid the reserves in order to balance the budget,” Pierzchala said.

During fiscal 2012 budget deliberations, the tax credit was cast as a “false choice created to be the bogeyman for the golf course funding,” Hall said.

The “false choice” was “between continuing RedGate operations or disposing of it and retaining the homeowners tax credit,” he said. “And that’s simply not the case.”

Les Francis said the credit is “a smokescreen.”

A $100 credit out of a median real estate tax bill for Rockville homeowners of $6,000 a year “is insignificant,” Francis said, reiterating his call for the city to replace real estate taxes with a piggyback on the state income tax, which he said would be “based on equity and fairness.”

The city’s cut is only about $1,200 of the $6,000 median real estate tax bill, Gajewski said. “And there, $100 is obviously about 8 percent,” he said.

“My priority was to keep that $100 credit in,” Gajewski said. “I was outvoted.”

Marcuccio said that when she first arrived on the City Council in 2005 she wanted two cents off the city tax rate but had to settle for a penny off the rate and a $100 rebate.

After three more years with a penny off the tax rate each year, the real property tax rate stood at 29.2 cents per $100 of assessed value in fiscal 2010, Maruccio said. With the economy in recession, the city was forced to hold the line on the tax rate but still managed to fund the $100 rebate, she said.

Marcuccio said that she agreed with Francis’s assessment that the credit “is a smokescreen” in that it only goes to property owners and not to the business owners. “It is a rebate that ought to be refined so that you know exactly who’s getting [it] and why,” she said.

The credit is important to low-income residents who the city “is trying to reach for tax credit programs that will enable it to get you what you need in the way of a tax reduction,” she said.

Eligibility of city taxpayers for the Homestead Tax Credit “is disappearing,” Gottfried said. From fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2010, the assessed value of homes increased, making city homeowners eligible for the credit.

“Now that our assessed value of our houses is going down, you see the disappearance of the tax credit and now you’re seeing our taxes go up. And that’s the real effect,” he said.

Trahan said he wondered why the $100 tax credit first went into effect and called for “a collaborative approach” to addressing the need for a tax credit.

“I really want you to pay attention to how people up here answered that question,” Trahan said. “Because if we can’t talk about and try to figure a clever way to come up with how in the world we deal with this $100 tax credit, what in the world are we going to do with bigger issues when it comes to development, senior issues?”

User fees and housing

Individually selected candidates were asked to respond to specific questions, including:

Would you maintain user fees at the Senior Center at their current level or vote to increase them?

Gottfried said he would not raise user fees and suggested that the City Council revisit the “laundry list” of “outrageous” user fees presented earlier this year.

Pierzchala agreed that fees should be visited.

“But I got to say that if we don’t have those fees, then something’s got to give,” he said. “Either we raise taxes or programs or services go away.”

What would you do to encourage affordable housing, amenities and jobs for people with disabilities?

“I would be only too happy to find some kind of development opportunity where we could provide the proper kind of services they need without impacting a neighborhood in a negative way,” Marcuccio said. “Certainly, we have those opportunities. What we’ve been offered so far have been so heavy and so dense they don’t fit a neighborhood’s plan.”

The city has the opportunity to provide such housing and services with Victory Housing’s proposal to build an 86-unit affordable housing development for seniors on four acres across Maryland Avenue from City Hall, Gajewski said.

“It fits right into the plan. It’s [a] transitional zone. It would be a wonderful place to have a facility for seniors there,” he said.

Approval for the project remains tied up in litigation.

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