Tax break for seniors may be widened

Panel to consider helping renters, disabled, others

April 15, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

A task force appointed by the county to examine tax breaks for senior citizens may expand its work to include other segments in need of relief.

"There is a consensus among the [County] Council that the scope of our investigation should be broadened," Ted L. Meyerson, chairman of the task force, told the group Thursday.

He characterized the prospect as a "high probability."

The needs of renters and the disabled are the sectors most likely to be examined, although Meyerson said that the council might wish to include the "general poor," as well.

It is unclear whether the membership of the task force would be increased to reflect those demographics.

"I'm in favor of this group being put in a position to assist people in desperate conditions," Meyerson, who is also the vice chairman of the Commission on Aging, said in an interview.

There was not unanimity, however, on whether the scope of the task force should be broadened.

Donald Dunn, a member of the group, said he is "absolutely opposed" to any expansion of issues that "don't have anything to do with seniors."

Dunn, also a member of the Commission on Aging, said that while it may be appropriate for the county to examine additional segments in need of tax relief, it is a "separate issue" that should be carried out by others.

But Meyerson said, "There are others who are in distress, and we should help them."

The 15-member task force was appointed in January to examine what many believe was a poorly conceived and election-induced tax cut for senior citizens that the council passed shortly before November's general election.

That measure, approved Oct. 31, cut property taxes 25 percent and froze the tax bills until homes were sold. It affected homeowners at least 70 years old with an annual income less than $75,000.

Frank Chase, a member of the task force, said Thursday that the council's original plan "was on the wrong track to begin with" and lacked "any mathematical sense."

The council has since modified the legislation by lowering the ceiling to $68,000 for a family of two, eliminating the freeze and establishing a cap of $500,000 in assets, discounting the homes and insurance. In addition, one must apply for the state's "circuit-breaker" property tax - a sliding income scale to determine the amount of tax relief - before qualifying for the county's provisions.

Sherman Howell, a member of the group, said the examination of tax relief "should be expanded to others ... who need help."

He said, however, that the county's efforts should be focused on "the least among us," and said a family with an income of $68,000 does not fall into that category.

The task force, Meyerson said, will continue to monitor the effects of the tax cut and submit a final report to the council in November.

Meyerson said the group will examine the number of residents who apply for the tax credit, how smoothly the program is administered and its impact on the county budget.

He said in an interview that there are elderly citizens critically in need of tax relief.

"I don't question the need," he said. "There are people in the county on limited and fixed incomes who have seen their tax bills rise way out of proportion to their incomes."

Some residents, Meyerson said, have a fixed annual income of $22,000 but face property taxes of $6,000.

Dunn said he is worried about how well the tax cut will be executed.

"The county will not have the logistics to carry this out," he said.

Sue Brown, a task force member, said she feared "administering this will be a nightmare."

Sharon Greisz, of the Department of Finance, said it is likely there will be some "confusion" as the tax cut is applied, but she said the county "will implement this to the best of our ability and make it as easy as possible."

Training workshops are planned for staff members, she said, and the county will establish a separate "phone bank" for residents to call, and the county's Web site will also assist people with the application process.

"The first year's going to be tough," Greisz said.

"I think there will be a lot of confusion," she said. " ... Every time you have a new program, it's confusing" initially.

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