"Probably a large percentage of the people aren't aware of it," said Edward Reisinger, vice president of the Baltimore City Council, who said he talked to two residents just last weekend who could benefit from the Homeowners' Property Tax Credit — if they'd known to apply. "It's like, are we keeping it a secret?"
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The credit is reducing taxes on 10,500 homes this year — to zero, in some cases. But about 55,000 owner-occupied households in Baltimore have income of $60,000 or less, according to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey. Assuming their tax bills are high enough, those homeowners would likely qualify for the break.
Reisinger said he's going to send information about the tax credit to community leaders, senior centers and others in his southern Baltimore district who could further spread the word. He said he would also speak to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about what could be done to reach more residents citywide.
The fine print in city tax bills that gives the name of the program and a number to call — without details about the program's purpose — is insufficient, he said.
"We should be trying to touch everyone in Baltimore City who could benefit," he said.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said her office received calls from homeowners hoping to get the credit after the Sun's story appeared Sunday.
"Almost every tax credit program — local, state and federal — that requires an affirmative application faces this challenge of 'getting the word out' when there are limited marketing resources," he said in an email. "We can always do more to work together to publicize tax credit programs through the web and social media."
The state Department of Assessments and Taxation, which oversees the program, doesn't have the budget to advertise the program. Its efforts include getting fliers inserted in Baltimore Gas and Electric utility bills at least once a year, training staff at housing groups and public agencies that work with the elderly, and providing information in the property reassessment notices that homeowners receive every three years.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is concerned that homeowners will miss information when it's included with other mailings. Email blasts and online efforts, meanwhile, won't reach homeowners without Internet access — the people she suspects are the least likely to know about the tax credit.
Her plan is to go door to door with fliers in her northern Baltimore district to try to increase participation.
Clarke said the credit was a "godsend" for an elderly relative with a small income, allowing her to stay in her home. The councilwoman said she wanted everyone who qualifies, especially the elderly, to be similarly protected.
"We've got to do outreach," Clarke said. "You have a whole bunch of people out there who should be getting it who need to apply."
If many more do, that would create a different sort of challenge — a bottom-line one. Every additional 1,000 recipients costs the state about $1.2 million per year.
The Department of Legislative Services has already flagged the program as a budgetary concern because the recession increased participation and costs. Statewide, the owners of about 50,000 homes get the tax help, up from 46,500 in 2008.
But local governments don't pick up the cost. That gives City Council members extra incentive to make sure their constituents know about the program.
"It's a real benefit that the state provides to the city because the state is helping us hold onto our homeowners as they age," Clarke said.
The 37-year-old program was originally for older homeowners only, but it was quickly expanded to all ages. A later change permitted home buyers to apply for the credit before purchasing so their lower tax liability could be taken into account by their lender — helping them get a home rather than keep one.