Gorham proposes senior tax relief plan

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Gorham Town Councilor Marla Stelk, left, Tuesday introduces a proposed property tax rebate plan for the town's elderly.

Gorham Town Councilor Marla Stelk, left, Tuesday introduces a proposed property tax rebate plan for the town’s elderly.

GORHAM —  The Town Council Tuesday unanimously backed sending a tax rebate plan for senior citizens to its Ordinance Committee for study and a recommendation.

Under language presented in Tuesday’s Town Council agenda, eligible seniors age 70 or older could receive a property tax rebate up to $500. The ordinance would apply to property owners or renters who have lived in town for 10 years.

Also on Tuesday, the Town Council enacted, 7-0, with little discussion a moratorium on retail marijuana establishments and retail marijuana social clubs in town. Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak said the moratorium is for 180 days and William Dale, town attorney, recommended its passage.

Town Council Chairman Benjamin Hartwell said at some point the Town Council would need to decide whether it wanted marijuana establishments at all.

It is not known how many of the town’s senior citizens would be eligible for the proposed tax rebate plan.

Town Councilor Marla Stelk brought the tax relief proposal forward to help keep the town’s senior citizens in their homes. Stelk, with an eye on the school budget and a proposed Gorham High School addition that could cost $60 million, is concerned about the impact of escalating property taxes for the town’s elderly.

“It’s a low cost way to provide some relief for the seniors,” Stelk said.

Paraschak said after the meeting that two local towns already have similar ordinances that are working. “Scarborough and Cumberland have successful programs,” he said.

Gorham’s proposal drew plaudits after the meeting from a member of the Lakes Region Senior Center headquartered in Gorham. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Gorham is making this positive move to encourage and assist seniors who want to live and stay in Gorham,” David Alexander said in an email response to a request for comment.

Alexander’s wife, Blanche, president of the seniors group, was to announce information about the tax proposal at a group meeting Wednesday after the American Journal deadline.

The proposed measure is modeled after Cumberland’s, but the Ordinance Committee will likely tailor wording to fit Gorham.

Town Councilor James Hager wants the age requirement lowered to 65. “That’s a national retirement age,” Hager said.

David Alexander concurred and advocated dropping the 10-year residency requirement. “The 10-year prior Gorham residency would cut out some who move to town,” Alexander said. “It is prejudicial to those from away. We should encourage seniors to move to Gorham.”

The town has several housing and assisted living projects for senior citizens and it’s unclear how an ordinance would apply to those residents. Town Council Chairman Benjamin Hartwell also questioned how an ordinance would apply to in-law apartments in private homes.

Rules would include those applying for a tax rebate to provide household income figures that would be calculated in a formula determining amounts of rebates. Alexander said the maximum proposed rebate of $500 “is too low.” Alexander said “Cumberland is using $750, Portland, $900.”

Applications would be processed in the Town Clerk’s to determine eligibility.  Hager is asking for an appeal process to be written into an ordinance.

Gorham, like Cumberland, could appoint a board of volunteers to assist senior citizens with filing applications.

The proposed ordinance would shift more of the property tax burden to younger taxpayers with children. Stelk pointed out at the meeting that seniors use fewer of the town’s tax dollars compared to families.

Town Councilor Ronald Shepard said the program is not reducing taxes. “It’s a rebate,” Shepard said.

Rising taxes might not be the only reason seniors citizens decide to leave town. “It’s one of many factors,” Town Council Vice Chairwoman Sherrie Benner, a real estate agent, said after the meeting.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.