Property tax assistance should be for low income people of all ages

Carl Wilcox

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Before I left to go to the June special town meeting, my wife told me I would be treated as an ogre for speaking against the Property Tax Assistance Ordinance that would have helped residents at least 70 years old who have household incomes of no more than $40,000 and have lived in town for at least 10 years.

It failed by a vote of 25-21. 

And sure enough I was portrayed at the meeting and in a newspaper article afterwards as a heartless person after old people.  My issue is not with helping old people, but instead that poor people, regardless of age, should be considered for property tax relief.

The ordinance as written assessed only one’s income and not one’s personal assets. Many people may consider $40,000 of household income per year to be a modest sum (equivalent to $19.23 per hour working 40 hours per week every week of the year).  But to someone working at the state minimum wage of $11/hour, the person who has a $40,000 per year income with no commuting costs and lower health insurance and out-of-pocket expenses due to Medicare is relatively wealthy.  For comparison, while I absolutely do not agree with it, per the 2019 U.S. Health and Human Services poverty guidelines, a family of seven would not be considered to be living in poverty if they had a household income of $40,000 per year.  Let that sink in for the next time someone says too many people qualify for welfare.  The poverty guideline for a family of seven is $39,010.

Eighty-five percent of the nation’s personal assets are held by people over the age of 53, as they should be since people should have been saving for retirement. However, the ordinance did not address personal net worth that has accumulated over a lifetime.

The family of a child applying for college financial assistance must declare all income and nearly all assets to determine the family’s minimum required financial obligation.  The child may get a Pell grant for a portion but will much more likely receive federally subsidized student loans.  After a brief grace period when they leave school, the student is responsible for all interest and principal, and that student loan debt is with them until it is paid in full with interest or they die.  In Maine, the average student loan debt is in excess of $30,000. 

There are elderly in this town that will live fine on less than $40,000 per year income and yet own multiple real estate properties worth multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars free and clear, and/or have millions in stock investments, or Roth IRA accounts that are not counted as income when liquidated. Why should these elderly pass their tax burden (a vast majority of whom voted to raise town taxes by 25.2% at the last annual town meeting) onto the young and poor, while a single-parent family in Wayfarer Village mobile home park, working at $11 an hour, 40-hours per week, 52 weeks per year, making $22,880 annually, picks up the tab for the asset-wealthy elderly?

If Maine was more attractive to youth, it would not have the highest median age of any state, 44.7 years.  My son moved to Utah, the state with the youngest median age, at 31.  You can feel the youthful energy, and the result is one of the faster-growing economies in the nation, while Maine is ranked 41st for economic growth.  Young adults with kids are major drivers of a local economy. We should be trying to attract youth and not chase them away by transferring the property tax burden onto them.

If an elderly person has spent down their assets and is living in a reasonable, modest house and can take care of themselves, it makes sense to keep them there and have the town not collect property taxes but instead put a lien on the property.  The town will receive its taxes with interest upon the person’s passing. If the person lives so long that the tax lien is greater than the property value, oh well, that’s life, it was money well spent by the town. If an elderly person has assets but not the income, they should sell their assets to give the young a chance in life to own a home and not pass their tax burden onto others, including the poor.

Now that the town budget includes a full time Parks and Recreation director, maybe they should schedule a visit by a social worker and financial planner that specialize in elders.  It might let a lot of elders sleep better at night.

I thank everyone who came out Wednesday night June 19th and successfully voted down the Property Tax Assistance Ordinance.

Carl Wilcox