Seniors speak out on property taxes

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006

At least one of two dozen senior citizens speaking out on property tax exemption rule changes said he felt like he was facing insurmountable odds.

“I feel I’m up against some real powerhouses, when you consider Superman and Geronimo are the sponsors of the bill,” said Funny River resident John Grunza with a laugh.

Grunza was referring to Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members Gary Superman and Deb Germano, authors of a proposed ordinance that tightens residency requirements to qualify for not paying taxes.

The ordinance would require a senior citizen to be eligible for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend the same year or the preceding year in order to receive the $150,000 exemption mandated by the state, and not be absent from the borough more than 90 days to qualify for the unlimited exemption above $150,000.

Many of the seniors testifying during the assembly meeting Tuesday night said they worked hard and paid taxes all their lives and now feel they have earned the right to take extended vacations, especially to escape Alaska’s winters and avoid needing to shovel snow, which becomes more difficult the older they get.

On the other side of the issue, Superman said the amount of property that is being exempted from property tax for senior citizens “is growing exponentially” and now totals about $400 million.

He said when he came back to the assembly in 2001, 1,947 seniors were claiming exemptions in the amount of $210 million.

This year, 2,661 seniors claim a total of $404 million in exemptions.

Grunza said using the permanent fund rules to establish residency “is the right way to go.”

“However, the 90-day requirement is too restrictive,” he said.

“All during my productive years, I worked two and three jobs — and my wife worked — so now I can go Outside for three, four months to avoid the harsh Alaska winters,” Grunza said.

Another Funny River resident, Rosemary Galloway, also said she has earned the right to go Outside for four months if she chooses.

“That should not jeopardize my tax exemption,” Galloway said.

“At least give us the six months as the permanent fund does,” she said.

Borough attorney Colette Thompson explained the exemption would continue to apply on the first $150,000 of the property’s assessed value as long as the property owner qualifies for the permanent fund dividend. The added residency conditions would only apply to the value exceeding $150,000.

“The way you guys are raising the values, you’re gonna get us anyway,” Galloway said.

Hardin Terrell of Homer said he approves of everything in the proposed ordinance.

“It prevents the rich from buying large homes up here and avoid property taxes while they travel abroad,” Terrell said.

Kenai resident Barry Eldridge said he also fully agrees with the ordinance.

“We have a lot of people coming up from down south and buying ($300,000 to $400,000) homes on the river and not paying property taxes.

“I’m glad to pay some taxes to the city of Kenai and the borough for the many services we receive,” Eldridge said.

“I think what you are doing is taxing the golden goose that lays the golden egg,” said Bill Wirin, who resides at River Estates Drive in Soldotna.

“You’re saying you don’t want snowbirds to come up and buy expensive homes. If they stop ... property values will stagnate or be reduced. You should reconsider,” Wirin said.

Dave Lowery, also of Soldotna, said he and his wife are on fixed incomes, and with property values continuing to skyrocket, they could be forced to lose their home because they could not afford the taxes.

“My wife and I enjoy running to the sun, and we find shoveling snow harder as we get older. We earned what we have,” Lowery said.

James McKinney of Kalifornsky Beach suggested freezing the assessed value of property after the owner reaches a certain age.

Earl Miller of Soldotna asked if a person spends the 90 days down south, would they not be allowed to go to Fairbanks or Seldovia that same year.

Pat Porter, who said she was speaking as a Kenai resident, not as the mayor, said the exemption program has “placed a burden on the taxpayers who are not over 65,” and suggested putting the issue to a vote of the people.

Following the testimony from the senior citizens, the assembly made several amendments to the proposed ordinance, but decided against trying to craft a perfect ordinance on the floor.

Action was postponed until the Sept. 5 assembly meeting.

Other assembly business

The senior citizen property tax exemption was not the only item on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s agenda Tuesday night.

The assembly also took the following action:

· Awarded a $363,796 contract to Alaska Road Builders to resurface the main parking lot at Kenai Central High School; and

· Awarded a $24,148 contract to Kenai Chrysler Center and a $193,527 contract to Great Bear Ford to purchase eight replacement vehicles for the Maintenance Department and Solid Waste.

The assembly also scheduled public hearings for Aug. 15 on:

· Accepting $2,069,000 from the U.S. Forest Service for spruce bark beetle mitigation work;

· Accepting a $10,000 public interest contribution from Michael Armstrong to develop and conduct an environmental protection symposium on gravel pits and gravel pit operation;

· Applying $702,515 from the state to the borough’s Public Employee Retirement System account unfunded liability;

· Accepting a $3,650 Department of Natural Resources grant for fire-fighting equipment for the Kachemak Emergency Service Area; and

· Accepting fire assistance grants totaling $7,500 for the Bear Creek Fire Service Area.

Borough Mayor John Williams presented an award plaque to borough Finance Director Craig Chapman, who was honored by the Government Finance Officers Association for his comprehensive annual financial reports.

A citation from the finance officers’ group said the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting it awarded to Chapman “is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting.”

Chapman said the award recognizes the work of his entire department, not just him.

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