Proposed legislation-granting, state-enabled property tax credits to nonprofit swim clubs in Howard County has met with opposition from the Columbia Association (CA) and its backers, who say the legislation is unfair because it excludes the CA.
The bill, submitted by Councilwoman Courtney Watson (D-Dist. 1) and co-sponsored by Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5), would make Howard County the second jurisdiction in Maryland to take advantage of an enabling state law passed unanimously by the General Assembly in 2006. The legislation was first enacted in Montgomery County shortly after its adoption by the state.
The state law allows counties and municipalities to grant a 100% property tax credit to nonprofits that are organized as swim clubs and that use their facilities exclusively to provide a recreational outlet for a local community; it is similar to legislation sponsored by then-Councilman Ken Ulman in 2005, which granted a tax credit to nonprofit sports clubs for their athletic fields and facilities.
Passed unanimously by the council, that legislation also did not benefit the CA — although Watson urged CA’s leadership to investigate whether they could take advantage of it.
Fighting the Red Tide
Not surprisingly, the county’s private swim clubs support the tax credit legislation.
“To install a new slide at our swim club today can cost more than $25,000,” said Greg Dahle, vice president of the North Saint John’s Swim Club in Ellicott City. “[This] will benefit our swim clubs by allowing current property tax expenditures to be used for desperately needed annual capital improvements [that will] keep our facilities safe and clean.”
Many of the county’s nonprofit swim clubs are experiencing a decline in paid memberships and are operating in the red.
“The $3,000 that we would save would be a 50% increase in what we’re projecting for our net income for the year,” said Noel Hall, president of the Atholton Swim Club.
He added that a lack of funds has forced his organization to impose a three-year waiting list for the payoff of membership bonds when members resign.
“When we start getting into the 2008 [resignations] at the end of this season, we’re not going to be able to pay all 30 of them off,” he said. “That concerns us, but we have to protect the solvency of the club.”
Dahle argued that nonprofit swim clubs have essentially relieved the county government and taxpayer of the burden of providing services to residents, noting that the clubs also provide employment to youth and county-based subcontractors.
Goose and Gander
CA President Phil Nelson argued that the CA should be included in the legislation.
“The requirement … that the entity receiving the credit be organized exclusively as a swim club … is not mandated by state law,” he said. “We oppose tax credits for specific uses, such as private nonprofits, especially when the county’s budget uncertainties are very real.”
Some CA backers have taken a dog-in-the-manger approach to the legislation.
“I believe this bill is unfair to Columbia residents who pay for the amenities provided by the Columbia Association,” said resident Cecilia Januskiewicz, who said she is not a pool user. “If you can’t have it apply to the entire county, then it shouldn’t apply to any part of the county.”
But according to Watson, it’s not a matter of the council’s legislation, but rather CA’s eligibility under the state law. She suggested that lawyers for both sides meet before the council’s July legislative session to determine whether the state law contains specific exclusions.
“I am more than willing to fight for the CA with the state if we need to do that,” Watson said.
Watson noted that the CA pays more than $100,000 in property taxes on 26 pools, while the five nonprofits at the council hearing pay a combined $50,000.
“The reason [nonprofits] pay more per pool is because CA was assessed at a lower rate to begin with because of … how Columbia land was taxed [historically],” Watson said. “In a way, the Columbia Association is already benefitting from a lower tax rate, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t benefit from this also.”
School Board Censure
At its June meeting the Howard County Board of Education voted to censure Board Member Allen Dyer for an alleged breach of confidentiality provisions tied to an Ethics Panel hearing process that began in December 2010.
Dyer allegedly released records of ethics complaints after information about a resultant hearing was leaked to a local blog in March, and his attorney allegedly released transcripts of the ethics hearing on June 6.
The ethics complaints against Dyer were ultimately dismissed.
With a vote of 5–2 and an abstention by Dyer, the board removed Dyer from its auditing committee and will now ask the Maryland State Board of Education to remove him from his elected position.
“The current situation makes it unlikely that the public can trust the board with confidential information, particularly in the context of ethics complaints,” said Board Member Frank Aquino, who introduced the resolution. “The public needs to know that the board is willing to take action against board members who engage in blatant misconduct.”
While board members Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt voted against the measure, they joined other members in expressing frustration about Dyer’s record of choosing lawsuits as a means of challenging board decisions and policy.
Dyer denied the charges against him and vowed to fight the resolution to remove him from the board.
“I have tried to protect public records from being destroyed and I have filed suit in support of a director’s board member’s right of inspection,” Dyer said. “I feel that the actions of this board … interfere dramatically with its ability to conduct its oversight function. That is not a minor issue, and I don’t see anything extreme in asking for the court to confirm [that].”