A new tax relief program for Maine homeowners over the age of 65 has proven to be quite popular in its first year.
The program allows Maine homeowners age 65 and older to have their property taxes frozen at the previous year’s levels, as long as they meet a few requirements. Applications closed earlier this month.
It’s not clear how many people will receive tax relief next year. But 142 municipalities have received more than 41,00 applications, according to the Maine Municipal Association, which is surveying towns and cities about their experiences with the new program. Maine has nearly 500 municipalities.
Maine’s largest cities say they have been flooded with applications.
The city of Portland has warned that due to the volume of applications, 2,572 applicants according to a city spokeswoman, taxpayers likely won’t learn until some time next month whether they’re approved for the program.
In Lewiston, assessor Bill Healey said his office has processed 1,654 applications so far.
“It’s more than I expected,” he said. “I figured we’d get maybe 1,000, 1,200. To be up to close to 1,600-1,700, that’s quite a bit. It really became all hands on deck the last few weeks trying to make sure we can get these things processed so we can reply to the taxpayers that applied for the program. They want to know. We’re getting calls.”
The city of Lewiston will send letters to applicants next month after the new year to inform them of their eligibility, Healey said.
The city of Bangor has received 1,164 applications for property tax relief, according to assessor Philip Drew. Fewer than 20 are not eligible for various reasons, he said.
South Portland has received and processed 1,692 applications for property tax relief. Only three applicants in South Portland weren’t eligible, said interim assessor Dean Prindle.
The Maine Legislature approved a few hundred thousand dollars earlier this year to get the program up and running. But state lawmakers will need to set aside more during this legislative session to at least partially reimburse municipalities for the cost of providing property tax benefits.
“If you look at an average mill rate increase between 3% and 5%, you’re talking pretty significant amounts of money that’s going to have be made up from somewhere else for all towns,” Prindle said. “You look at York, Cumberland, Androscoggin Counties, three of the higher population counties in the southern part of the state, those numbers are going to add up pretty quick.”
Many municipal assessors say the program is well-intended but has been a challenge to administer. Healey estimates his staff in Lewiston has spent more than 700 hours processing tax relief applications, and his office has put off the usual permitting work and four-year reviews that usually occur during this time of year.
And some municipalities are hopeful that the Legislature might consider some changes to the original property tax relief program.
“There’s no way they can eliminate this,” Healey said. “It benefits way too many people, and it’s very, very popular. Among the residents it’s extremely popular.”