2015-10-16 / Community News

New tax program to provide seniors relief

Council chairman sees program as ‘... important part of creating a balance in the community’
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

Town councilors are hoping a new tax assistance program pioneered by Scarborough Town Council Rules and Policy Chairman Bill Donovan will provide senior citizens the tax relief they need to continue calling Scarborough home.

The new tax assistance program, which councilors got their first look at last week, would replace the one currently on the books.

The current property tax assistance program, Donovan said, stipulates if a household qualifies for the state program, it can qualify for the local program as well.

The new tax assistance program, which would remove that tie to the state program, is aimed at making tax relief for senior citizens easy and predictable, something Donovan said the state program is lacking. This, he added, has made it difficult for residents to get the tax relief they need.

“The state program has changed a number of times over the years,” Donovan said at the Oct. 7 town council meeting. “Working on the finance committee the last three years, I noticed (participation) was dropping precipitously.”

In recent years, Donovan said, the state program was changed to save money.

Town Council Chairman Jessica Holbrook said she was “disheartened” to see the local program “come apart because of things happening with the state.” She said she sees the tax relief program as “a vital and important part of creating a balance in the community” when it comes to taxation.

To qualify through the new program, which is scheduled for a public hearing and second reading Wednesday, Oct. 21, Scarborough residents have to be at least 65 years old and have lived in the town for at least 10 years.

Households that make more than $50,000 are not eligible. Neither are those who pay less than 5 percent of their annual income to property taxes. Renters can also qualify using 18 percent of their rent instead of property tax amount.

Tax relief is capped at $500, a figure Holbrook said she would eventually like to see bumped up. The payments would be funded through money set aside in the town’s general fund or other sources. Any surplus money after all payments have been doled out would go to the Property Tax Assistance Reserve Account.

To create the new tax assistance program Donovan worked with Scarborough resident Craig Friedrich, a retired tax attorney, who he called an “invaluable resource.”

“We worked out a program that I think is right for Scarborough,” Donovan said.

The new program, if adopted, would take effect for the fiscal year 2017 tax bills. The filing deadline would be Oct. 15, 2016. The current tax relief program would remain until then. It would be overseen by the Assessor’s office. Town Assessor Matt Sturgis would be required to report projected payment and number of eligible applicants to the council every December.

Town Manager Tom Hall said no new staff would be required to offer the tax relief program.

“I believe it is well within their capabilities,” Hall said of Sturgis, Assistant Tax Assessor Susan Russo and Administrative Assistant Sara Salisbury. “I believe it can be done with existing staff. It won’t need additional staff.”

The program, and Donovan’s effort, was well received by the council.

“I have to commend him. He didn’t take no for an answer. There were some roadblocks,” said Councilor Kate St. Clair, who called it “something the town desperately needs.”

Tax relief has been a concern for Town Council Vice Chairman Jean-Marie Caterina.

“I’ve been concerned about this the last couple years because I heard the elderly in the community concerned about their property tax and how they used to be able to rely on the state check to pay for fuel, for example,” she said.

Councilor Shawn Babine said he appreciated the renewed look on property tax relief.

“I was one of the co-authors of the original program that was passed 10, 15 years ago. I think it is a nice evolution,” Babine said.

Residents being able to afford rising tax bills in not an issue just in Scarborough. The story is the same in other communities in southern Maine. That is why St. Clair said she would like to have Donovan reach out to other cities and towns to see if Scarborough’s approach would work there.

“I think what we have come up with is something that should be shared,” St. Clair said.

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