South Portland aims for property tax relief, reuse of former school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council passed a first reading Monday of an ordinance to establish a program to reflect changes in state requirements for what was previously called Circuit Breaker tax relief.

Councilors also gave final approval to rezoning the Roosevelt School on Pine Street for apartments, and received a donation to the fund for a new hot tub at the Community Center.

Residents who received tax refunds last year from the state and city Circuit Breaker programs will likely receive less money or be ineligible for a property tax refund entirely this year, according to City Manager Jim Gailey. Last year, the program was also restructured to service a much smaller demographic.

In order to receive the new Property Tax Fairness Credit at the state or city level this tax season, applicants must be age 70 or older and have a maximum gross household income of $40,000 or less. Prior to this, there was no age restriction for applicants, and the maximum gross household income was $86,600 or less.

The Legislature also significantly reduced the maximum refund that can be received at the state level from a $1,600 maximum to $400 for couples and $300 for individuals, which is the current amount that can be refunded at the city level.

If a family previously received $1,600 from the state and $400 from South Portland, or $2,000 total each year as a refund, the most it could receive this year would be $400 from the state and $400 from the city, or $800 total.

Another change to the program is that those who do qualify will have to fill out a special form as part of their income tax return.

City councilors were concerned that confusion caused by the change might cause eligible applicants to miss the tax credit.

“I feel bad because a lot of people who did get help with their taxes in the past are not going to be eligible any more because now you must be 70 years of age,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said. “… I think a lot of people will be surprised and I’m sad that this is one more of those ‘dig into your pockets’ that the state has pushed down.”

Gailey encouraged city residents to call the finance office at City Hall if they meet the new guidelines for the Property Tax Fairness Credit to get assistance in receiving their refund.

The council is scheduled to take final action on the ordinance on March 17.

Roosevelt School

Developers of the former Roosevelt School, at 317 Pine St., received official approval from the council to convert the building into 18 residential apartments.

With Councilor Michael Pock absent, councilors unanimously approved the rezoning ordinance.

The developers, Anew Real Property Development LLC, have promised to meet minimum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design construction standards, and to retain much of the architectural integrity of the old school building.

The City Council authorized the sale of the building on Dec. 4, 2013. This week’s council approval followed a Planning Board meeting Jan. 28, where members voted unanimously to move forward with the rezoning.

Councilors said the project would repurpose a historic building and increase the city’s tax base.

Hot tub fund

The council accepted a $10,000 donation toward a new hot tub from South Portland resident Jack Gibson, although the city still has far to go toward its fundraising goal of $100,000 by June 2014.

South Portland has been without a community hot tub for almost 12 years. The tub introduced with the pool at the Community Center in the late 1970s lasted until 2003, when it was costing more than it was worth to maintain.

Gailey, who reminisced about his days playing in the hot tub as as child, said it is an amenity for all members of the community, especially seniors and those recovering from athletic injuries or general aches and pains.

So far, about $17,800 has been raised, with an additional $20,000 coming from the city to pay for the tub’s relocation and some insulation improvements.

Councilor Thomas Blake made a plea to the public for fundraising ideas, and suggested the committee spearheading the fundraising put on a benefit play later in the spring.

In other business, the council approved refinancing old debt of $1.89 million for a lower interest rate, and the previously announced redistricting of South Portland’s five election districts.

The city will alert residents whose voting stations have changed. Maps are also available on the city website.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.