Tax relief for the elderly gets nod from South Portland City Council

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents 70 or older are expected to get some property tax relief this spring after city councilors Monday gave the go-ahead to amend the local “circuit-breaker” ordinance.

No formal vote was taken during a workshop preceding the council’s regular meeting, where councilors approved a new fee schedule for demolishing buildings, and a food and vinous license for the Portland Players theater company.

With council assent, City Manager Jim Gailey and his staff will draft revisions to the property tax relief program that was established two years ago and effectively shut down last year by the state Legislature.

Gailey’s work will coincide with emergency legislation in Augusta to undo an “inadvertent element” of the Property Tax Fairness Credit passed last year. The new program terminated all municipal tax relief programs working in conjunction with the former state tax and rent relief program.

In two years, Gailey said the city program reimbursed more than 200 residents an average of almost $200, based on their eligibility in the state program. Residents were reimbursed 25 percent of what the state refunded, which was up to $1,600.

In its first year, the city program was funded with $30,000, and reimbursed $12,000 to 62 applicants. More than $17,000 was carried over to last year and $15,000 was added in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

The number of applicants increased dramatically to 151, and more than $30,000 was reimbursed.

Once a new program is in place, Gailey said $2,000 will be carried over from last year and $30,000 will be budgeted for fiscal year 2014. With emergency legislation expected to pass this month or early next month in Augusta allowing the program to restart, Gailey said he is targeting a March-to-May local application period.

The revisions will require a public hearing, two council readings and a vote, but unless Gailey proposes substantive changes, Mayor Jerry Jalbert and councilors agreed there is no need for another workshop on the program.

The new state program reduces maximum rebates from $1,600 to $400 and is open only to residents who are at least 70,  instead of all adults. But a primary challenge to determine eligibility for the city program comes because the new state program requires applicants to fill out a part of the 1040-ME tax returns to get a tax credit instead of a cash rebate.

The city program required applicants to show a state receipt of the rebate, and city Finance Greg L’Heureux said Monday that state officials have told him they will not share tax form information with municipal officials to determine eligibility.

Also, because those who are eligible for city reimbursements may be Social Security recipients who do not file tax returns, L’Heureux encouraged interested applicants to meet with AARP volunteers who help residents file mock returns the city can use. The volunteers use the basement meeting room in City Hall each Monday evening through tax season.

In other business, by a 4-3 vote, with Councilors Blake, Smith and Linscott opposed, a section of Chapter 5 of the city code governing buildings was amended to reduce demolition fees from $15 per $1,000 of assessed value to flat rates of $50 for a primary structure and $25 for a secondary structure.

Gailey said the city issued 16 demolition permits with fees totaling more than $19,000 last year.

Blake opposed the change, which may become part of additional revisions to the code, because it was not discussed at a workshop and could run counter to efforts to save older buildings in the city because it makes demolition less expensive.

“I just think we need to look at other ramifications,” said Blake, whose motion to postpone the vote failed.

Despite pleas from several neighbors, councilors also unanimously supported granting a vinous service license to the Portland Players at 420 Cottage Road.

Portland Players Trustee Jeff Campbell said theater staff will be trained to properly serve wine, and supplies will be locked away when the theater is dark.

The addition of another venue serving alcohol on Cottage Road in the Meetinghouse Hill-Willard Square area brought Joe Mokry and Melissa Denick of Cottage Road and Ellsmere Avenue resident Pamela Jordan to the podium to say enough is enough.

An expanding restaurant scene in the neighborhood has created parking problems and resulted in intoxicated patrons in the area, they said.

“There’s no room for all these restaurants,” said Jordan, who has lived on Ellsmere Avenue for more than 20 years.

But because the theater is serving wine only when it is already open and the seating capacity of 350 will not change, councilors said the concerns may be misplaced.

While supporting the license, Councilors Linda Cohen, Michael Pock and Maxine Beecher said they aware of neighborhood discontent.

“These people, they live in a mixed neighborhood, and it becomes a real issue,” Beecher said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.