Bringing Home Help For Seniors

report_from_trentonBy John S. Wisniewski

It’s not easy being a homeowner these days. The economic crisis is hitting everyone hard. Rising property taxes, home maintenance fees and the ever skyrocketing cost of living are putting many New Jersey families at financial risk. And for senior citizens living on fixed incomes, the threat of loosing or being able to maintain a home during these trying times can be especially great. That is why I am working to ensure fairness and common sense in the New Jersey Senior Property Tax Freeze Program.

The New Jersey Senior Property Tax Freeze Program is in its 11th year of reimbursing eligible senior citizens and disabled persons for property tax increases, yet every day I meet people who are still unaware of this great program and its benefits. Under this program, eligible applicants are reimbursed directly for the difference between the amount of local property taxes paid in their “base year” (the first year they became eligible and filed for the program) and the amount of property taxes paid in the reimbursement year. So every year that you qualify, you will receive a rebate back for the amount of money that your property taxes have increased going all the way back to the first year that you joined the program.

First-time Senior Freeze applicants must meet the following eligibility requirements to apply for this year’s program:

• For 2007 and 2008, have been age 65 or older or receiving Social Security disability benefits as of Dec. 31

• Have lived in New Jersey continuously since before Jan. 1, 1998, (as either a home owner or a renter) and lived in the home for which the reimbursement is being claimed since before Jan. 1, 2005

• Have paid the full amount of property taxes that were due on the residence for the base year and for each succeeding year

• Have a total household income for 2007 that is $60,000 or less and for 2008 that is $70,000 or less

This wonderful program has helped countless seniors on fixed incomes stabilize their property taxes, but there is still one aspect of the requirements that I feel needs to be addressed. Right now if you are in the program and happen to go over the income limits in a single year- you lose your original tax freeze amount. So if you were to take money out of an IRA to use for critical home improvements, that might put you over the income limits for that year’s tax freeze program.

Once you are out of coverage, you then have to re-establish your base year at the current property tax levels. It is simply inexcusable to expect seniors participating in this program to forgo necessary home improvements out of the fear of paying to pay more taxes.

I am currently working on legislation that would end this unfair penalty by allowing seniors to retain their “base year” in the tax freeze program in the instance that they need to take funds out of an IRA to fix or maintain their homes. You wouldn’t be eligible for the senior freeze in the year that you had the higher income with the IRA money, but the next year when your income goes back down to the senior freeze level, you would be able to continue in the program with the same base year property tax calculation from 2 years before. Simply put, if passed, my legislation would allow you to retain your base year if you take money out of your IRA to say- fix your furnace or repair your leaky roof.

On a related matter, I am also fighting to allow homeowners 62 or older to waive the cost of any construction permits, surcharges or other municipal construction enforcement fees when having work done on their homes. I believe that seniors living on fixed incomes should be able to spend their golden years at home without being subject to some of the fees that prevent them from maintaining their residences. Under my plan, the requirements you would need to meet would be the same as those for the New Jersey Senior Property Tax Freeze Program.

My colleagues and I in the General Assembly have made a commitment to making the current economic crisis priorities one, two, and three. Keeping seniors in the homes and communities they’ve spent their lives working for is an important part of reaching those financial goals.

If you are already enrolled in the New Jersey Senior Property Tax Freeze Program you will be receiving your application shortly by mail. If you are looking to apply for the first time and need an application – or if you have any questions about the program or my legislation – you can contact my office at (732) 316-1885. Keep in mind that the deadline to apply this year is June 1, 2009.

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