BRUNSWICK TOWN COUNCILOR Alison Harris, a member of the Finance Committee, talks about the committee’s thought process behind a proposed property tax assistance program on Monday. DARCIE MOORE / THE TIMES RECORD

BRUNSWICK TOWN COUNCILOR Alison Harris, a member of the Finance Committee, talks about the committee’s thought process behind a proposed property tax assistance program on Monday. DARCIE MOORE / THE TIMES RECORD

BRUNSWICK

Brunswick officials are weighing a taxpayer-funded program that would provide property tax and rent relief for seniors.

Brunswick town councilors discussed the Finance Committee’s proposed property tax assistance ordinance on Monday. Applicants would need to be at least 70 years old, have lived in Brunswick for at least 10 years, be up to date on their property taxes, received the state Homestead Exemption and also applied to the state for and received a tax credit through the Maine Property Tax Fairness Credit Program.

Brunswick Finance Director Julia Henze said she anticipates the town would distribute $75,000-$100,000 per year, based on how many Brunswick residents participate in the Maine Property Tax Fairness Credit Program. There were 209 homeowners and 27 renters 65 and older who received a tax credit in 2016. They saw a total rebate of $71,508, according to state data.

The Finance Committee has been planning for the rebate program for the past year.

Henze said that the proposed program, as presented Monday, would piggyback on the state’s property tax and rent rebate program. By state law, the town must also offer the rebate to qualified renters. The town’s application for the program would grant it permission to find out what the state’s Property Tax Fairness Credit Program is giving applicants, so the town can match it. Henze said it saves the town administrative work and saves on duplication for the applicants.

As proposed, qualifying residents could get back all of the property taxes they paid through the combination of state and town programs, according to Henze.

While the town could accept donations to help fund the program, Henze said it likely would be funded by other Brunswick taxpayers as a line item in the budget.

Henze said in a phone interview Monday that the town doesn’t have any information about how many seniors are paying property taxes in town, which is also part of the reason they are piggy backing on the state programs, because the state already has data on likely applicants.

The U.S. Census Bureau puts the town’s population at 20,619 in 2017, and residents age 65 and older make up 20 percent of the population. According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services plan on aging for 2016-2020, “those in the oldest age group (age 85 and over) have poverty rates 50 percent higher than younger Maine seniors. Maine seniors age 75 to 84, and 85 and over, are most likely to live with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Approximately 70 percent of low-income seniors receive Social Security as their sole source of income, compared to half of seniors who are above poverty levels.”

Like the state’s Property Tax Fairness Credit Program, the town’s rebate program would be for those with a maximum income of $33,333 if single, $43,333 for a two-person family and $53,333 for a family of three or more. For renters to qualify, they must have paid rent totaling more than 40 percent of their total income.

“It’s going to be easy to cut this,” Henze said, in order to reduce the tax impact during the budget process going forward. This program wouldn’t be in place until 2019 if the council moves forward with it. Monday it was just up for discussion.

Councilor and Finance Committee member Jane Millett said the Finance Committee didn’t want to be handing out money to people who aren’t taking advantage of other programs they could be eligible for. Many don’t know anything about or take advantage of the Homestead Exemption, for example, she said.

Councilor Steve Walker applauded the Finance Committee’s work Monday. He noted nearly twice as many people under 65 had applied to the state property tax credit program compared to those over 65. Given the lack of affordable housing and rentals in Brunswick, he asked if the committee had considered opening the program in the future to people younger than 65, “so we can attract families that are being priced out of this town.”

Councilor and Finance Committee member Alison Harris said the Finance Committee discussed this at length.

“We wanted to go small and if it’s successful, expand the program if we could rather than start with a very grand program that we had to cut back,” she said. “We really did struggle with balancing two costs of the program. One is the actual rebate cash that we would have to put out unless we could raise a lot of money through donations, and the other is of course the administrative burden it would place on staff.

“At the same time,” she continued, “we were very mindful of the issue of lack of affordable housing. We hear it all the time from people who appear before us — the struggle that people are having paying their taxes — and wanted to provide some genuine relief. It was really a balancing act.”

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