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SCARBOROUGH — A new property tax assistance ordinance, intended to better allow senior citizens to age in place in Scarborough, will go into effect next year.
It will allow eligible residents over the age of 62 to receive tax refunds based on their adjusted gross income.
The decision comes on the coattails of changes to the Maine Property Tax Fairness Credit last year, which shifted the eligibility requirement from adjusted gross income to total income.
Fewer seniors were eligible in 2015, so fewer applied for the tax credit.
“This year, we had 105 applications for assistance, a decrease of 101 applications from last year,” Susan Russo, assistant town assessor, said Wednesday morning.
Nearly $33,000 was granted in local property tax assistance to those 105 residents this year, compared with $75,000 to the 206 eligible recipients last year, according to a memo earlier this month from Town Assessor Matt Sturgis.
From 2010 to 2015, the Assessing Department relied on the state’s program to determine which seniors qualified for tax assistance. Whatever amount a household was reimbursed annually by the state, the town would match, up to $500, Russo said.
When the eligiblity requirements changed in 2015, “it had a devastating effect,” he said.
“You’re looking at a group of the population (whose) Social Security is not increasing,” Russo said, “but every other expense around them is.”
With the dramatic drop in the number of residents who receive any tax credit at all, the Town Council decided earlier this month to adopt a tax credit program separate from the state’s eligibility requirements.
Given the socioeconomic setting of Scarborough, Councilor Bill Donovan said “we felt it was appropriate to have stability in this program, so we set about working to try and come up with one that will be suitable for the town.”
In 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, of the nearly 2,200 households in Scarborough with residents over 65, more than 1,200 made less than $50,000 annually, and about 500 made less than $20,000.
“You’re starting to get down to a very low amount of money on which to live in Scarborough, which is obviously a relatively expensive community,” Donovan said.
Those figures, he added, “really brought home to me the magnitude of the problem.”
One of the people behind those figures is 76-year-old Barbara Foley.
Barbara Foley, 76, has lived in Scarborough since 1974, when she and her husband built their home on Maple Avenue, where she still lives today.
Until this year, Foley, who cobbles together an annual income of $25,000 from three jobs, received about $1,000 in annual property tax credits from the town and state.
“I rely on it to make repairs on the home,” she said Wednesday.
With the eligibility changes this fiscal year, however, she did not qualify for reimbursement.
“It was quite a shock. I was so used to having the state and town (credit), that it’s quite a hit not to get it,” Foley said. “My repairs are really non-functioning right now.”
At the insistence of her three children, Foley has looked into selling her home. Maintaining the 41-year-old building is too difficult and expensive to do on her own, she said, but the price of condominiums in Scarborough is too high.
Additionally, her home is valued at less than what it is worth, because Foley “would have to put thousands of dollars (of repairs) into it to even put it on the market,” she said. “If I could afford these, I wouldn’t be selling.”
“I think, for a lot of senior citizens, leaving their home is really a hard thing to face,” Foley added. “Where do you go? I cannot afford anyplace here in Scarborough. It’s really sad.”
Allowing older residents like Foley to grow old comfortably, without feeling forced out by dwindling finances, is important, Donovan told councilors at their Nov. 4 meeting.
Residents who qualify for the new town assistance program must be 62 or older, must have lived in Scarborough for at least 10 years, and have a federal adjusted gross annual income of no more than $50,000.
Residents can receive more information and apply through the Tax Assessor’s office, in the Scarborough Municipal Building, at 259 U.S. Route 1.
The maximum benefit a household can receive is $500, but that threshold may increase, Donovan said.
“Being unrealistic, I’m hoping for $500,” Foley said. “It’s hard to say because I know what I’m living with, but I know there are senior citizens that are perhaps more in need than I am. Although, for me, it’s just enough and I couldn’t do without it.
“No matter how old you get, you like to have a few dollars to guy gifts at Christmas time, and when you can’t it’s a little hard.”
While the extra money definitely helps, the new program also comforts Foley because it conveys that “the town cares,” she said. “They aren’t just throwing us aside.”