Five years have passed since a state law went into effect giving communities the option to defer property tax payments for certain seniors. Only two — Wells and Winthrop — have taken the state up on the offer, while in a third, Saco, a deferral proposal was scheduled to go before the City Council on Monday night.
It is, on the surface, a surprise that more communities have not implemented the program, which is designed to keep in their longtime homes seniors who are struggling to pay their bills. There has been a consistent upward pressure from state policy on property taxes, from decreased aid to the elimination of relief mechanisms, and the deferment program is one of the few ways municipalities can counter increases, short of gutting valuable services.
But maybe the program’s lack of use is for the best. Instead of instituting property tax relief community by community, and demographic by demographic, Maine needs to address its property tax burden holistically, by bringing back the statewide programs that have been proven to work, such as the recently repealed “circuit breaker,” and by forcing the state to live up to its obligations to communities and schools.
The senior property tax deferment program, passed into law in 2009, is for residents who are 70 or older, have lived in their homes for 10 or more years and have incomes no higher than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Property taxes are deferred for qualified seniors until they sell the home or die, at which point the municipality is paid with interest.
The law was aimed at helping seniors cover the sometimes precipitous increases in property taxes that have occurred in the last decade, often after they had retired and settled on a fixed income. Other programs with the same goal also have surfaced — in Saco, for instance, seniors can volunteer with the city in exchange for a $750 tax credit.
On some level, it makes sense to focus on seniors. In many cases, they’ve worked most of their lives and are now retired. They’ve often paid off their mortgage. They were counting on a predictable level of property taxes and a decent economy, and they got neither.
Property tax problems, however, are not isolated to seniors. Low- and middle-income Mainers are feeling the pinch, as well, and they should share in the relief.
The biggest hit came last year, with the elimination of the Maine Residents Property Tax and Rent Refund program. Also known as the circuit breaker, the program provided up to $1,600 in relief to homeowners who paid more than 4 percent of their gross adjusted Maine income in property taxes, and to renters who paid more than 20 percent of their income toward rent. An estimated 200,000 Mainers were eligible for the program.
The circuit breaker was replaced by the Property Tax Fairness Credit, which even after it was bolstered this past legislative session maxes out at $600 for income-qualified residents under 65 and at $900 for those 65 and older. Overall, far fewer Mainers qualify for the tax credit than did for the circuit breaker.
Also, local aid in the form of state revenue sharing has been cut significantly in the last five years, leading municipalities that have done well to control spending to nonetheless raise property taxes. Those revenue sharing cuts in part resulted from the 2011 income tax cuts that tipped in favor of Maine’s wealthiest residents.
At the same time, the state continues to fail to properly fund education, handing down that responsibility to the cities and towns as well.
Add to that a historic economic downturn, featuring high unemployment and underemployment as well as stagnant wages, and the conditions have been right for rising property taxes amid a declining ability for low- and middle-income Mainers to pay them.
That’s where the circuit breaker comes in. The program, which was steadily cut in value following the start of the recession until is was repealed last year, is true tax relief for a wide swath of residents. Restoring the program to its original vibrancy is the best way to get that relief to the Mainers that need it most.