Council Member Gabe Albornoz Credit: Photo via Twitter

Montgomery County Council Member Gabe Albornoz wants to reward seniors for getting out of the house — and give them a cash cushion to help them stay in their homes.

He’s behind a proposed bill to allow the county to offer property tax credits to senior volunteers at local nonprofits and schools.

The state legislation — submitted by state Sen. Ben Kramer of Wheaton at Albornoz’s request — is drafted broadly to include any resident 65 or older who owns a home in the county.

Council members would be responsible for setting the value of the tax credits and additional eligibility requirements if the Maryland General Assembly passes the bill, Kramer said at a delegation hearing this month.

But some residents had concerns about the scope of the legislation, which sets few limits on who would be eligible for the incentives.

The bill — unanimously supported by the County Council — comes as legislators face stagnating property tax revenues and a projected budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.

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Council members voted to support the legislation over the recommendation of their own legislative analysts, who advised them not to take an immediate position on the bill.

“If you provide a credit to one resident, another resident will pay more in taxes,” legislative analyst Gene Smith told council members at a hearing on Dec. 9. “Council staff didn’t see a reason why we needed to weigh in on this.”

Albornoz, who was a co-chair on the Age-Friendly Montgomery Advisory Group, said the bill was simply enabling legislation that would allow the county to implement a responsible credit.

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He pointed to similar efforts across the country — from Denver, Colo., to Brewster, Mass. — where local jurisdictions offered credits between $450 to $1,500.

“Four hundred and fifty dollars may not sound like a lot of money, but that’s two months’ worth of groceries for a senior who is on a fixed income,” Albornoz said earlier this month. “This bill would simply allow us to pursue this further — obviously taking into account the problems we have with revenue at the moment.”

Volunteering has been linked to health benefits for senior citizens. But for proponents of the bill, the financial benefits seemed to be the biggest consideration.

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Aging in place has become a concern for the county as the cost of living grows higher. A 2018 study from the Montgomery County Planning Department found that roughly 15.5% of senior households were severely burdened by expenses, spending more than half their incomes on housing costs.

In a recent survey on community livability, less than half of residents rated the county favorably as a place to retire. 

“It’s a great place to grow old if you can afford it,” said Cindy Karst, a Bethesda resident who testified in favor of the bill at a delegation hearing this month. “I don’t want to leave Montgomery County. And this little bit of help would make it easier to pay for being here on a fixed income.”

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But some residents had questions on who would be eligible for the tax credits and which organizations would apply. State Del. Kirill Reznik said he “loved” the intentions of the bill, but had concerns over a lack of specificity in the nonprofits covered by the bill.

“A nonprofit can be a social club. It can be a local poker group,” he said at the hearing.

Even a political action committee counts as a nonprofit, he pointed out.

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The same concerns were shared by Gaithersburg resident Kathy Gugulis, a frequent critic of recent council policies.

“Will all nonprofit agencies apply or just a select few?” she asked delegates at the hearing. “If all nonprofits apply, there’s likely to be a huge cost.”

The bill currently gives the council broad scope to craft the policy. County analysts said there would be little chance for fiscal analysis until members set clear requirements for the tax credits.

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The county may use the same charities and nonprofits approved for student service learning opportunities by Montgomery County Public Schools, Albornoz said Monday.

The council is also considering whether to increase support for the volunteer center within the county’s Office of Community Partnerships. The office would be responsible for administering the tax credit program, Albornoz added, but is still operating at recession-era funding levels.

Council Member Craig Rice — who joined his colleagues in supporting the bill — said it aligned with the council’s recent emphasis on racial equity and could be used to promote volunteerism at less privileged schools.

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“I think this is great,” he said at the council hearing. “While I’d love to have a senior volunteer at [Walt Whitman High School], the reality is that if they volunteered at Wheaton [High School], it would make a bigger difference in what we’re trying to do. So, I certainly want to make sure that as we’re looking at guidelines, we’re looking at it through that lens.”