Critics of property tax increase say: ‘Senior citizens are being thrown to the wolves’

School district says revenue needed

The thought is almost enough to make Scott Henderson lose his appetite.

It wasn’t long ago that he and his wife, Betty, realized they were spending more in property taxes each month than they were on groceries.

“That makes me sick to think about,” said Henderson, a retired Hallmark Cards employee.

Henderson pays about $200 per month in property taxes on his $190,000 southwest Lawrence home. His grocery bill is usually something less than $50 per week because it’s just the two of them at home these days.

What’s certain is that Henderson’s $200 per month tax bill will go up in 2007. The final piece in determining how much it will go up is scheduled to be made by Lawrence school board members on Monday. The board will consider increasing the school district’s property tax rate by 6.437 mills.

The city and county commissions already have finalized their mill levies – with each choosing to keep rates virtually unchanged. But both commissions did so knowing that tax bills would rise anyway, because the value of Lawrence homes has increased by about 4.5 percent on average.

Lawrence resident Scott Henderson, a retired Hallmark Cards employee, says it's getting harder and harder for senior citizens on fixed incomes to keep up with property taxes. He and his wife pay about 00 in property taxes a month on their home, which is more than they spend on groceries.

If school board members agree to the full 6.437 mill levy increase made possible when state legislators passed a new school finance bill, property taxes on a $150,000 home in the district would increase by about 10 percent, when factoring in a 4.5 percent increase in the home’s value. The tax increase equates to about an extra $200 per year for a $150,000 home.

Senior struggles

Henderson, who unsuccessfully ran for the City Commission in 1999, said retirees on fixed incomes are most likely to be hurt by a tax increase. He said he had urged school board members to think about that before raising the mill levy.

“I’ve told them they are making poor people out of seniors,” Henderson said. “We have worked hard to save money all our lives, and now they’re taking it away. I call it legalized robbery because they can do it.”

But school board members say the money is desperately needed.

“Our base state aid for the past 10 years has basically lagged pathetically behind any cost-of-living measure you can find,” said school board president Sue Morgan.

Now that state legislators have given districts more ability to increase local taxes, Morgan thinks the district needs to seize the opportunity, though the board may do something less than the full 6-mill increase. She said the district was at an important point in its history because more than 40 percent of the district’s staff was now 50 years or older.

“They’re ready for retirement, and the challenge is going to be to replace those folks with the same quality of people,” Morgan said. “That will take some resources.”

Plus, board members point out that there hasn’t been much public opposition to the proposed increase at school board meetings.

Part of that reason, some seniors said this week, is that no one wants to be accused of being against children or education. One 65-year-old Lawrence woman who refused to give her name said she had a hard time swallowing the proposed tax increase even if it was for children.

The woman, who was at the Douglas County Senior Center, says she receives $467 per month in Social Security benefits. She spends approximately $100 of that on property taxes for the modest Lawrence home she has lived in 15 years.

“I think the children are being pretty well taken care of, but I think the senior citizens are being thrown to the wolves,” the woman said.

Elected officials, though, say it takes money to run good governments or school districts. And, they note, few people advocate for a decrease in services.

“But we certainly fill up school board meetings when we talk about cutting services,” Morgan said. “We’ve had 300 or 400 people at meetings telling us why we shouldn’t cut something.”

Henderson, though, said he wished governments would look more closely at cost-cutting before raising tax rates.

“They say they don’t have choices, but how much money does the school district spend on football, track, basketball and all other sorts of programs that take place outside the classroom?” Henderson said. “I don’t want to cut those programs either, but I don’t like people choosing between medicine and food, either.

“There are choices that could be made, but they wouldn’t make the people who make them very popular.”

Business blues

Larry Billings knows at least one other group hurting from property taxes as much as seniors: business owners. In particular, downtown business owners have been seeing large increases in property valuations, which have increased property tax bills.

Also, businesses are taxed on 25 percent of the value of their property, versus the 11.5 percent for residential property.

That combination of higher property values and higher tax rates has been a rough one for Billings, who, with his wife, Gwen, owns the Lawrence Antique Mall, 830 Mass.

If the school board implements its tax increase, combined with a nearly 14 percent increase in his building’s valuation, Billings will owe about $6,000 in additional property taxes in 2007. That’s on top of increases the last two years that have totaled 52 percent. His total property tax bill will be about $35,000 for a business that largely sells antique dishes, memorabilia and other similar items.

“You just have to get more creative,” Billings said of how businesses deal with the increases. “I already work seven days a week because I can’t afford to pay for the extra help.”

Billings, though, is convinced the downtown will see some significant business closings in the next 12 months, unless the city finds some way – either through property tax rebates or other assistance – to help.

“I really do feel like we’re ruining downtown,” Billings said. “It won’t be our jewel for long. At some point it is going to become a piece of coal, if we don’t do something.”