Tax breaks allowed for senior volunteers

Posted Oct. 06, 2008, at 10:56 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Town officials across the state are cautiously eyeing a new law that allows them to provide senior citizens with another avenue for tax breaks.

LD 2202, which was enacted in April and went into effect in mid-July, allows towns to adopt a program that would provide up to $750 in property tax benefits to residents 60 and older who volunteer their services to the towns where their homes are located.

While such a program would help needy senior citizens, some town officials said it would have a financial impact on already strapped municipal budgets.

“They definitely want to do the math as to enacting that,” Mike Starn, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, warned Monday. “My guess is that not many communities will take advantage of it, at least not in the short term, but that a few may try it.”

Greenville officials have been asked by a resident to initiate such a program, which would be above and beyond the Homestead Exemption provided to qualified homeowners.

“I’d just like a payback from the community to the senior citizens that have given a lot of time and effort towards this community over the years and are still continuing to do so,” resident Loren Ritchie said Monday. The retired educator said the program could be tailored to the community. For example, he suggested the town could offer such a program for residents 65 or older regardless of income and could limit the exemption to $350.

Ritchie worries that some seniors who are on fixed incomes may not be able to stay in their homes as winter approaches because of the high cost of oil and the lack of state and federal funds to help them. “I think a lot of the volunteers here are older people who have retirement incomes, not great ones. At least they have a fairly solid income, but still in all, they’re struggling,” Ritchie said.

Greenville Town Manager John Simko said he plans to investigate the law further.

“I would very much like to find a way to have Greenville offer property tax relief to our senior citizens,” he said Monday. “It’s folks on fixed incomes that have the hardest time making ends meet in a town like Greenville.”

Still, Simko said he is a bit hesitant to offer such a program, since the Legislature left a lot of “ends untied” in the bill. “To me, just on the outside looking in, there are still a lot of details to be worked out,” he said.

Simko said he was concerned about where the town would find funds for the program.

It is those untied ends that bother Kittery Town Manager Jon Carter, who initiated the legislation, which he said had a totally different look and feel once it was passed in the Legislature. “There are [towns] all kind of waiting and dancing around this issue only because it is a tough one to bite off,” he said Monday.

Carter said what his town wanted was permission to give a tax abatement for volunteer work by senior citizens similar to a program offered in several Massachusetts communities.

Carter said town officials are drafting an ordinance to create a safety net for people threatened with loss of property and who are over-income for General Assistance by no more than 15 percent. If such an ordinance were approved, it would be used sparingly for those who qualify. In exchange for volunteering at accepted jobs in town, qualifying seniors would be paid the prevailing minimum wage, up to $750, to be applied to their taxes, he said.

In 2007, St. Agatha adopted a similar program for its elderly residents but without the volunteerism requirement. To date, no one has requested the extra assistance, according to St. Agatha Town Manager Ryan Pelletier. The property tax assistance ordinance that was adopted required that applicants must be 65 or older, have lived in the town for 10 years, and have applied and qualified for the state’s property tax and rent refund. For those who qualify, the town would give them 15 percent of whatever the state provided them through the property tax and rent refund, he said.

“We haven’t gotten any takers at all, but what we’ve always maintained is that it’s an important program to keep because we feel that property taxes are becoming more and more difficult, especially for our elderly to pay,” Pelletier said Monday. Pelletier believes most residents are too proud to ask for local help but find it easier to ask for state help.

That may change within the next couple of years, he said, because the town plans to do a revaluation. “I think that’s when that program will become more used by them,” he said.

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