By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
It looks as if the city’s senior property tax rebate program will continue in some form, but it likely will be cut based on income – and if the savings are significant enough, it might also be extended to include seniors who do not own their homes.
The Elgin City Council on Wednesday directed city staff to find new options for reducing and perhaps redistributing a property tax rebate that for 13 years has gone to local senior citizens who own their homes or mobile homes.
The city staff had proposed limiting the rebates for the first time this year with projections that the city’s share of admission fees and gaming tax receipts from the Grand Victoria Casino would continue their free fall this year to below $13.275 million. That was the level the council set in 1996 as the point at which the city would re-evaluate the program. The rebates are funded with riverboat revenues.
The city staff had suggested adding a further restriction: that the rebates be awarded only to seniors with an annual income of $55,000 or less – an amount tied to the Senior Citizens Assessment Freeze Homestead Exemption, which residents would have to apply for at the county level to qualify for the city rebate.
The staff proposal would have limited the rebate payout to $325,000 instead of the full $825,000 that would be paid out this year if there is no change to the program. If the city’s riverboat revenues exceed the $13.275 million limit, the city then would issue supplemental rebates to all qualifying seniors.
But the staff proposal inspired several levels of reaction on the council, including some creative thinking in terms of further reducing the income eligibility to poverty level, yet adding more seniors to the program by eliminating the homeownership requirement.
Before discussion on the matter got under way, City Manager Sean Stegall advised the council that Councilman John Steffen, who could not be at Wednesday’s meeting, had asked that the discussion be continued to the council’s Aug. 10 meeting.
Councilman Richard Dunne also expressed reluctance about proceeding with action on the staff proposal, suggesting it might be best to wait until the city’s budget task force is seated and can weigh in on the issue.
Stegall, however, disagreed with that notion. First, the city already is several weeks behind in issuing the rebates. Second, he suggested the task force should be considering long-term revenue and expenditure needs, while the potential shortfall in this program is more immediate and requires direction now.
Elgin’s share of admission fees and gaming tax receipts from the Grand Victoria Casino hit a high of $24.3 million in 2007 after a decade of increases. Since then, the state imposed an indoor smoking ban that casinos blamed for a significant drop in revenues, and the Great Recession in 2008 pushed unemployment to record highs, also taking a toll on the gambling industry. The revenue to the city is expected to total only about $13.04 million this year, and is projected to decline further to just $10.54 million a year from 2012 to 2015.
In the course of the discussion, Mayor David Kaptain said he likes the idea of linking eligibility for the program to income, something that was applauded by others on the council as well.
Kaptain suggested that the city tie its rebate program to the state’s Circuit Breaker Program, which helps low-income seniors with assistance for prescription drugs. Doing so would set annual income at about $36,000 for a household as a condition for the rebate, further reducing the city’s cost. Doing that, Kaptain said, might enable the city to expand the rebates to seniors who are on low incomes but do not own their homes.
That, Kaptain said, would put rebate money in the pockets of those who need it most, whereas wealthier seniors are able to do without the rebate.
Both he and Councilwoman Tish Powell said they’ve gauged the reaction to the staff proposal to reduce the rebates to be of general acceptance among senior residents who understand the budget obstacles the city faces after three or four years of budget cuts.
Kaptain asked Stegall to gather the information and determine if what he proposed is even feasible – none on the council appeared to know whether the state’s Circuit Breaker Program database would be open to the city’s use.
“If we’re going to do this, we need to help the people who need it most,” Kaptain said. “There are a lot of people in Elgin who are pretty good with this – they understand.”Stegall told the council the city staff will bring back several different alternatives centered on the neediest seniors in this community.