City OKs tax relief plan for seniors

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WESTBROOK — The City Council Monday put into place a local property tax program to refund up to $500 to qualifying seniors as early as this fall.

Residents who are 70 or older, participate in the state’s property tax fairness credit program and have lived in the city for at least the last 10 years are eligible to apply for the refund. Applications, available at City Hall or online at www.westbrookmaine.com/166/Tax, are due back Sept. 1. The refund will be based on the individual’s prior year tax bill and income.

Decisions on whether applicants qualify will be completed by the end of September, tax collector Dena Lebeda said, and checks should be sent to recipients in early October.

Based on the anticipated number of eligible residents, $50,000 has been set aside for the refunds.

Councilor Mike Foley said at a May 6 meeting that he looks forward “to seeing this program enacted to help our seniors make ends meet.”

A senior property tax relief program in the city has been in the works for a decade and implementing the program was one of Mayor Mike Sanphy’s goals for this upcoming fiscal year.

The plan approved Monday is similar to those in other communities, although the age requirement is higher.

In Gorham, a resident must be 65 and have lived in the community for five years to receive up to a $500 refund. In Scarborough, residents 62 and older can receive up to $600 if they have lived in the town for 10 years.  Portland’s program provides up to $900 for seniors 62 and older. In Windham, qualifying seniors must be 65 and have lived in the town for a decade before they can receive up to $500 in tax relief.

“I do like this program. I do like how other communities are running (theirs) and running it fine and I am happy to jump in now,” Councilor Victor Chau said at the May 6 meeting.

Council President Gary Rairdon said $500 may not seem like a lot, but it could make it easier for seniors to purchase basic necessities like food or medicine.

“Any way we can help the seniors in our community is a great win,” he said.

“This program is well timed and serves a population of our community that is in need and needs some help,” Councilor Brendan Rielly said at last week’s first reading.

At that meeting, Rielly said there is another group in Westbrook that needs help with their tax bills: those with minor children. He said he would like to see a similar program set up for those in the city with children and asked his colleagues to forward that request onto the Finance Committee.

“Not only in this city, but in the state and country, we have a significant and devastating problem with childhood poverty. A program such as this that could provide a cash reimbursement to those individuals with children living in our community that could help put food on the table, clothes on their backs would be an important second step,” Rielly said at last week’s council meeting.

At this week’s meeting, councilors took Rielly’s suggestion into account, but didn’t move forward with it. Foley said the program may be needed, but now is not the right time to introduce it.

“We are just venturing down the road of offering a property tax assistance program for seniors. I am not sure we should immediately put on our plate increasing and expanding that program into an area that could be a burden on the municipal budget that we don’t even know of,” Foley said.

Foley said “it would be prudent for us as leaders” to see how the senior citizen property tax assistance program works over the next year and possibly add additional tweaks to the tax assistance program in the future.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

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