Property tax help for seniors and the disabled going unused

Published: Sunday, April 28 2013 11:35 a.m. MDT

Vesti Ann Sitze talks about a property tax break that she qualifies for at her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – For Vesti Ann Sitze, making ends meet is a matter of stubborn pride.

“My house payment comes first. My bills come before I get food or anything else.” Sitze said in an interview Friday.

That includes paying her property taxes. However, Sitze qualifies for property tax relief through a program administered by the Salt Lake County Treasurer’s Office. This past year, about half of Sitze’s property tax bill was abated, which meant she had nearly $600 to spend on other things she needs.

“That’s $50 less she has to pay for property tax each month,” said Stephanie Woody, a licensed practical nurse/caseworker for Salt Lake County Aging Services who has worked with Sitze for 17 years. “That’s more than she gets in food stamps.”

Sitze, 61, is physically disabled and has a very limited income. Living in her own home, she says, is “freedom.”

Salt Lake County Treasurer K. Wayne Cushing said tax relief can make a tremendous difference in the lives of needy and disabled taxpayers. State law authorizes counties to provide the relief. The laws have been on the books for decades.

While closing the books on the county’s tax collections for 2012, he noticed that utilization of some property tax abatement programs had dropped from previous years, including one for seniors with very low incomes.

“That kind of caught my eye. That shouldn’t be the case. We have more elderly people not less, meaning we haven’t been getting the word out as best as we can,” he said.

That particular program is meant to help seniors whose incomes are low and fixed, aside from occasional cost-of-living adjustments. Over the years, however, their property values and tax obligations have increased.

Many seniors purchased their homes decades ago when they were still in the workforce and earning “market wages,” Cushing said. Most rely on Social Security, pension or other retirement savings to pay the bills.

“You don’t want it to be such a hardship that they’re paying more in tax than they ever were for their mortgages,” Cushing said.

Cushing said the number of people who are legally blind applying for tax relief has also fallen in recent years.

Everette Bacon, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, says most blind people who apply for tax abatements use the money they would have spent on property taxes to make improvements to their homes.

“It allows us to use that money to do things like get the lawn mowed on a regular basis. We have a little extra money to get the house painted or do other things regular homeowners most likely try to do for themselves,” he said.

Tax relief is helpful for people who are legally blind who need the assistance, he said. “At the same time, they have a lot of pride. They want people to know they’re not taking advantage of this situation. They didn’t ask for it (blindness). It just happened. It’s life. They’re doing their best to pay their taxes and be contributing members of society,” Bacon said.

Karl and Sharon Smith, who are both blind, apply for the tax abatement each year. It frees up $500 to $600 a year that the Smiths usually spend on home maintenance they are unable to perform themselves.

“I can do a lot of things around my house but painting is probably not one of them,” Karl Smith said.

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