South Portland hopes to increase tax assistance for elderly

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city hopes to increase tax assistance to older residents by lowering the eligibility age to apply for the credit. 

City Councilor Maxine Beecher, who is part of an aging in place committee formed to investigate the needs of residents 65 and older, said there was money available last year that went unclaimed, which prompted the city to look at how to ensure those who qualify are getting the help they are entitled to. 

The City Council will decide whether to change the city’s ordinance in the spring or early summer, Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said. He said an additional $10,000 will be added to the program for next year’s applicants with the intention the age limit will be lowered to 68 from 70.

To qualify, a resident must have lived in South Portland for 10 or more years and earn less than $33,000 a year. The city’s program mimics the state’s tax fairness credit program, and applicants must apply to that program to qualify for the city’s program. 

Applications must be received by April 13 to be considered for the 2018 tax bill, according to the city’s website. 

“The trouble is, the people who need it the most, either don’t know the program exists, or they see it as charity, and it’s not,” Beecher said. 

It is expected more people will apply for the credit in the coming year if the age standard is lowered, L’Heureux said, adding that in the last two years, the city has not foreclosed on any property for non-payment of taxes. He said the city also works with homeowners to work out a payment plan if meeting the tax payment is an issue.

L’Heureux said the credit provides marginal relief to seniors on fixed incomes. 

Beecher said the city has not done an adequate job of informing residents the program exists. She said the method of communication with older residents is important, since many are not online, and prefer correspondence through traditional mail. 

About two months ago, with the assistance of students from the University of Southern Maine,  the committee sent surveys to residents 65 and older to help identify what needs seniors are facing. Beecher said there were five questions related to taxes, transportation, isolation and assistance with errands. 

About 1,500 responses were received and the data is being compiled and categorized, Beecher said, adding she is eager to see the results of the survey. 

The city started the program in 2012, after the Legislature approved municipalities’ ability to offer assistance, said L’Heureux.

In 2016, the city received 118 applications that qualified for assistance, which rose slightly to 123 in 2017. Rebekka Conley, who implements the tax assistance program, said the average amount received was $264. The budget for the program is earmarked at $35,000, and if the money is not all appropriated it rolls over into a reserve account, she said. 

Councilor Kate Lewis said any way to help keep older residents stay in their homes by providing tax relief is a good practice.

“Fortunately, the city is in a position where we have a surplus, and when we can give that surplus back to taxpayers that need it, I fully support it,” she said.  

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106. or at 

South Portand City Hall