Tax break approved for Gorham seniors

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GORHAM — The Town Council Tuesday OK’d a property tax assistance ordinance to benefit the town’s elderly, but it’s not clear how many residents the plan would help or what it will cost.

Residents age 65 and up who have lived in town at least five years and meet specific income qualifications can apply for the property tax rebate. Rebates of up to $500 will be limited to one person per household.

The measure passed 5-2, with Councilors Paul Smith and Suzanne Phillips opposed. No residents spoke from the public podium at the sparsely attended meeting.

Smith and Phillips favored tabling the proposal to a workshop for more discussion to fine-tune details, not the least of which was putting a pricetag on the program.

Under the new ordinance, property owners and renters alike can apply for a rebate.

Smith, citing a duplex as an example, worried that multiple people – the owners and the renters – could get a tax rebate for the same property.

Councilor James Hager also said he could see how two occupants of the same building could get a rebate. Smith argued for language that would allow only one tax rebate per property.

The number of seniors who would qualify under the plan’s income formula was unknown as well as total cost of the program. “We don’t know how much this is going to cost,” Smith said. “I can’t support it the way it is written.”

The tax rebate amounts could be up to $500, according to wording of the ordinance. But amounts depend on how much the town would budget to cover the rebates. “I don’t want to promise this and then change it,” Phillips said.

Seniors can file applications in the office of Town Clerk Laurie Nordfors no later than Aug. 1 for rebates of taxes billed in September. Sherrie Benner, Town Council vice chairwoman, said after Tuesday’s meeting that the board would set the amount to be distributed and payments to eligible seniors could be pro-rated according to the number of approved applications.

The number of eligible seniors was unknown Tuesday. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” Benner said.

The Town Council might have opted to delay passage of the ordinance until after learning a potential number derived from research that would include utilizing U.S. Census information.

Town Council Chairman Benjamin Hartwell had asked Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak  for more “refined data” about those eligible for the program. Paraschak indicated he could follow up.

“We’re not up against a time barrier,” Paraschak said.

Smith made a motion to table the matter and Phillips seconded it but the motion failed 3-4.

The ordinance was based on a similar one enacted by Cumberland. Gorham’s ordinance comes in advance of a likely multi-million dollar high school renovation/expansion proposal that could go to voters in 2019.

Local property taxpayers would shoulder the entire debt load as the state would not participate in funding a project.

In other action, the Town Council unanimously approved issuing a new liquor license and special amusement license to Sebago Brewing Company. “This is the new facility on Main Street,” Hartwell said.

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