Senior property tax exemptions are a reasonable way for municipalities and school districts to give elderly taxpayers, many of whom live on small, fixed incomes and don’t have children in school, a break on their taxes so they can stay in their homes after they stop working. But every dollar of relief they confer on seniors has to be made up by someone else, and in an economy with many non-seniors also on “fixed” (read: stagnant) incomes, that can be problematic.
Senior exemptions run as high as 50 percent, but there are income limits set by the state; for example, no one making more than $29,000 is entitled to the maximum, and localities and school districts can set their limits much lower. Most don’t due to political pressure from a powerful voting bloc, but one that does in this area is the Scotia-Glenville district.
As a story in Thursday’s Gazette indicated, the district is currently under the gun to raise income limits, currently at $18,000 or less for the maximum 50 percent exemption, rising to $25,500 for the smallest exemption of 10 percent. Indeed, the exemption in the school district has stagnated for the past decade while the cost of living, including school taxes, has risen. Meanwhile, exemptions given seniors in most of the other area school districts have been adjusted for inflation according to the state’s income limits.
But as Thursday’s story indicated, raising the limit substantially so more seniors (some of whom have seen their exemption eliminated or reduced as their incomes rose, however slowly, with inflation) qualify, will put added burden on the district’s non-seniors. The S-G school board is aware of the issue and has asked its business manager to research the cost issue, but it will be hard to calculate until the enhancement is adopted and seniors start applying for it. (They wouldn’t have to reveal their incomes until then.) At that point, it would be too late to turn back, and non-seniors would be forced to make up the difference.
So the school board needs to proceed very slowly. If it’s going to raise the income limits for this exemption at all, it needs to do so gradually, so non-seniors don’t get hit with any sudden big tax hikes. (They tend to go up fast enough as it is, and not just at Scotia-Glenville.)
Seniors still qualify for a juicy school tax exemption — $62,000, more than double the $30,000 that non-seniors get — through the state’s Enhanced STAR program. And this program has an unusually generous income ceiling, of $79,050. Thus thousands of seniors around the state are paying little or no school tax. That’s OK as long as they’re on modest incomes, but they (and school board members) have to keep in mind that life for many middle-class working families isn’t what it used to be, either.