Brunswick tax-relief program may hinge on age question

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BRUNSWICK — Town councilors are considering whether a potential local tax-relief program should benefit only the elderly, or be made available to all residents.

Still in its infancy, the draft presented at a Monday meeting is “a work in progress,” Finance Director Julia Henze said. But as proposed, it would only benefit residents 70 or older. It is based on the State Property Tax Fairness Credit, a refund that defines eligibility by income.

Councilor Sarah Brayman was one of only a few councilors who expressed a strong opinions on the early draft.

She supported the initiative, but not the age requirements. She said wouldn’t advocate a program that didn’t “offer a credit to everyone,” citing state-provided data that showed the majority of Brunswick residents enrolled in the state’s tax relief program are actually under the age of 65.

But if Brunswick’s financially struggling elderly are a minority, they’ve been an especially vocal one. The age parameter proposed Monday was inspired by repeated public calls from residents living on fixed incomes who are concerned about increasing property taxes.

“As a council, you need to keep older people in their homes,” 72-year-old Jean Powers, who has repeatedly pleaded at meetings for greater tax relief for retirees on fixed incomes, told the council Monday. “I think you need to start with retirees first.”

In June, the property tax increased 3 percent for the 2018 fiscal year. But last month councilors found local revenues to reduce the increase to 2.5 percent after learning in July that the state cut Brunswick’s Homestead Tax reimbursement in half.

In addition to cuts from Augusta, major local facilities projects – such as the construction of a new, locally funded $28 million elementary school, and the growing need to build a new central fire station – have also stoked anxiety among residents who fear they’ll no longer be able to afford their tax payments.

Since June, town staff have responded by working with the finance committee on a municipal relief program, Henze said. Monday was the first time she and her deputy director sought input from the full council.

“Most of what we’re doing is raising a lot of questions,” Henze said, including whether councilors want to create a local program at all.

The consensus among councilors Monday was in support of further developing the program.

In the coming months, however, they’ll need to address concerns like Brayman’s, and define parameters for eligibility and a method of funding.

In addition to the question of age, Henze outlined in a memo several eligibility questions for the council’s consideration: Will the program be available to renters as well as homeowners? How will residency be determined? How many years of residency will be required? Will the town require participate in the State Property Tax Fairness Credit Program?

A number of approaches exist, said Deputy Finance Director Branden Perreault, who has spearheaded research on the proposal and cited several area communities that have implemented local programs of varying requirements and scope.

He also shared data that showed the number of Brunswick residents who received state tax credits over the last two years; those credits, notably, do not accumulate disproportionately for residents over the age of 65 who received aid.

The data is broken into those age brackets by the state, Perreault explained.

In 2016, residents under the age of 65 – a pool of 243 homeowners – received a total of almost $80,000 in refunds. The pool of homeowners over 65 was smaller: 209 residents received a total of more than $65,000.

For renters in 2016, the data was dramatically more skewed in favor of the those under 65: that group (of 196 participants) received about $44,000 in credit, where their older counterparts (only 27) received a total of about $6,000.

Brayman used those numbers to justify her position.

If the town is going to implement a program where residents essentially “cross-subsidized” each other’s taxes, then it should be available to everyone, she said, especially if the available state data indicates that the greatest need isn’t a function of age.

Councilor Steve Walker agreed, although the rest of the council refrained from weighing in with strong opinions.

They don’t need them yet, Town Manager John Eldridge noted, since the program wouldn’t take effect during this budget year. Getting answers to Henze’s questions isn’t urgent, he said.

In the meantime, Chairwoman Alison Harris suggested the finance committee continue work on the draft.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Brunswick Town Hall

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or