Tax assistance plan could give Bridgton seniors a break

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Each Thursday, selectmen hear various requests to be considered in the next municipal budget.

Bear Zaidman, however, pointed out that one group that could use a financial break  rarely gets considered, but should — Bridgton senior citizens.

“We fund outside organizations $85,000 a year,” he said. “We should help our own.”

Selectmen could follow the path taken by other Maine towns by instituting a property tax assistance program. William Shane, who serves as Cumberland’s town manager, gave Bridgton selectmen an overview of his town’s program, which Shane said has been quite “successful” since it went into effect 11 years ago.

“It’s the single most important thing I’ve done in my career…(The program) does something for our people who have been supporting our community for years,” Shane said. “It’s such a positive thing. It’s doing the right thing for the right reason.”

Shane noted that some aspects of the program can be tailored to what selectmen feel may be more appropriate for the town they serve.

“It’s all up to what you want to do,” Shane said.

Here’s how Cumberland approaches property tax assistance for seniors:

The program, which is allowed by the state legislature, provides property tax assistance to individuals 70 years of age and over, who reside in the town;

The applicant shall have a homestead (defined as a dwelling owned or rented by the person seeking tax assistance or held in a revocable living trust for the benefit of that person, and the dwelling must be occupied by that person and that person’s dependent as a home) in town at the time of the application and for the entire year prior to the date of application. In regards to “rent” constituting property tax, 15% of the gross rent actually paid in cash or its equivalent during the tax year solely for the right of occupancy of a homestead. Gross rent simply is right of occupancy, it does not include other charges such as utilities, furnishings, etc.

The applicant has been a resident of the town for at least 10 years immediately preceding the date of application for participation in the property tax assistance program;

Only one qualifying applicant per household. Eligibility shall be determined based on a maximum adjusted gross income.

The program outlines income standards to be met to qualify. Based on these guidelines, rebates can range from $50 to $750. Again, Shane noted that rebate amounts can be determined by selectmen.

Applicants must fill out a program request form and submit it to the town manager. In Cumberland, the deadline is Aug. 1 of the year for which the refund is requested. The form must include the applicant’s name, homestead address and contact information. Attached to all applications shall be proof of household income, property taxes paid or rent constituting property taxes paid during the tax year on the individual’s homestead in the town.

Shane said he works with the town’s deputy clerk about 2 1/2 hours for four days over a two-week period, processing about 153 applications.

“It’s really simple,” he said. “We put out a notice in the newspaper as to where to call, then set up appointments. They get a senior property tax worksheet and the numbers are filled out before they come in for their appointment. There’s not a lot of paperwork.”

Shane pointed out the applicants bring in their financial information and leave with it.

Once appointments are completed and applications reviewed, the town manager informs selectmen the projected payments and number of eligible applicants requesting assistance from the program fund.

How is the program fund created? Money can come from the general fund or other sources to support the program. Zaidman asked whether the town could utilize Community Development Block Grant money as seed funds to start the program? Town Manager Bob Peabody said he would research whether CDBG money could be used in this manner. Any surplus money available after all payments have been made can be carried forward within the fund to the next fiscal year.

Shane says Cumberland averages about $65,000 in rebates each year, with a high being $115,000. He said many people who qualify were so “elated” even if they received the minimum rebate. It was the “thought” that touched many seniors. There was even a senior who donated the $350 rebate to a local food pantry to help others.

“The person just wanted to see if he was eligible, and decided he wanted to help someone who needed it,” Shane said.

Tax assistance payments are made to those who qualify no later than 14 days from the date selectmen approve the applications.

“We keep this a transparent process,” he added. “It’s a great program, and it does help keep our senior residents in our town.”

Whether Bridgton follows suit like other Maine municipalities such as South Portland, Scarborough, Berwick, Harspwell, Kittery and York instituting tax relief programs for seniors will be part of the budgeting process over the next several weeks.

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