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Property tax help for seniors and the disabled going unused

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 6:08 p.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) 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.”

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) 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)

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.

Nurse Stephanie Woody, case manager with Salt Lake County Aging Services, talks about a property tax break that helps Vesti Ann Sitze at Sitze's home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Nurse Stephanie Woody, case manager with Salt Lake County Aging Services, talks about a property tax break that helps Vesti Ann Sitze at Sitze's home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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.

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) 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)

“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.

Nurse Stephanie Woody, case manager with Salt Lake County Aging Services, talks about a property tax break that helps Vesti Ann Sitze at Sitze's home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Nurse Stephanie Woody, case manager with Salt Lake County Aging Services, talks about a property tax break that helps Vesti Ann Sitze at Sitze's home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Diana Bullock, an Iraq war veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury and other physical injuries resulting in disability in a rocket attack while serving in Bagdad, learned about the disabled veterans abatement program from a fellow soldier. Disabilities must be service related, according to program requirements,

Bullock said she had expected to have to work through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to apply. Instead, the county’s application process was “seamless,” she said

“The staff was very nice and knowledgeable. It was amazing to me. I thought the government paperwork would take forever. I was pleasantly surprised,” she said.

Depending upon the program, tax relief can range from total forgiveness of the property tax bill to 12 percent.

Vesti Ann Sitze moves through the backyard of her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Vesti Ann Sitze moves through the backyard of her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The state of Utah helps make up some of the tax relief extended by the county but other property owners make up the rest, roughly $6 million in 2012.

It’s no small sum but the total amount of taxes collected by Salt Lake County in 2012 exceeded $1 billion. That includes taxes levied by school districts, special service districts and local governments.

Depending upon the program, tax relief can range from total forgiveness of the property tax bill to 12 percent.

While most people are able to meet their property tax obligations – the county had a 97 percent tax collection rate in 2012-- the Treasurer’s Office allows people to pay what they owe over time. It is not tax forgiveness, Cushing said.

“They have to make an effort. We’re obviously not going to keep forgiving it year after year but we’re willing to work with people as long as they’re making an effort. Most people will,” he said.

Vesti Ann Sitze moves through the backyard of her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Vesti Ann Sitze moves through the backyard of her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 26, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Sitze, who was partially paralyzed by a viral infection in her spinal cord in her late teens, said the indigent tax abatement helps her live independently. She relishes the small joys of home ownership such as the roses she grows in her tiny front yard.

That took on greater significance after her left leg was amputated and she had to live in a nursing home while she recovered.

Any program help that enables her to live independently in her own home is a plus for her and saves taxpayer dollars, Sitze said.

“It’s your home. It’s freedom. How else can I say it? You’re proud of your home,” she said.

Marjorie Cortez is a veteran journalist who covers immigration, poverty and other human services issues for the Deseret News and KSL. She has reported for news organizations in Colorado and Utah since 1983, the last 24 years at the Deseret News.

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