Saco might join few Maine towns that let elderly defer taxes

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George Coburn hopes to sell his Saco home, settle his tax bill and move to Florida. I love the area, but I cant afford to pay the taxes, he said. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

SACO — George Coburn recently put his house on the market.

Faced with property tax bills that have more than doubled since he built the house himself 14 years ago – he now pays $6,406 a year – Coburn sees no other option but to move. It’s a situation he hopes other seniors could avoid if the Saco City Council approves a new tax deferral plan.

“I love this house, I love the area, but I can’t afford to pay the taxes,” Coburn, 72, said as he sat in his sunny kitchen. “I wanted to stay here until I die.”

Saco’s city councilors will consider a proposal Monday to become one of the first Maine communities to allow seniors to defer payments on their property tax bills until they die or sell their homes. The program is allowed under a state law passed in 2009 that was designed to give qualifying seniors a way to stay in their homes, but it has been adopted in only a couple of towns.

Wells became the first town to offer the program in 2010. Winthrop followed a year later.

Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, who sponsored the bill, pushed for the program after seeing senior citizens struggle to keep up with taxes on the homes they had owned for decades. A former tax assessor in Wells, she said it was heartbreaking to see elderly residents stressed over how to pay the bill.

“These are people who would pay their bill if they could. They don’t want a free ride, but they don’t want to worry about losing their homes,” she said. “This allows a pathway for people in that situation to have a means to stay in their homes. If it saves one couple or one person, it’s wonderful. That’s what it’s meant to do.”

To qualify, residents have to be 70 or older, have lived in their homes for more than 10 years and have incomes no higher than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Their property taxes would be deferred until their deaths or the sale of their homes, then paid back to the city with interest.

While Chase and others say there is a clear and growing need, the programs themselves have spread slowly and drawn little participation, something attributed to the strict qualifications and to a reluctance by many elders to ask for assistance.

Wells has not had a resident qualify and few inquire about it, according to town officials. Winthrop has had one participant.

Winthrop Town Manager Jeffrey Woolston said the town wanted to provide an “option that can be offered to seniors who have owned their homes forever, have contributed to society and need help. ... The help ought to be available at the local level.”

Despite the low participation level, Chase sees it as an important safety net for seniors. She also believes the program could gain traction as the state deals with issues that come with an aging population.

Maine’s median age – 43.5 years – is the highest in the nation, in part because of a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s proportion of people age 65 and older – 17 percent – is second only to Florida’s 18.2 percent.

By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older, magnifying existing shortages in transportation, housing, health care, long-term care and elder services. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining aging issues in an ongoing series, “The Challenge of Our Age.”

Those trends are mirrored in Saco, where the median age is 41.9 years. About 13 percent of the city’s nearly 19,000 residents – 2,436 people – are 65 or older, according to the census. The median age in York County is 43.

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