City invites input on tax break

Task force develops five options for senior sales tax exemption

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2006

For Gary Miller, retirement in Juneau meant he could finally have the time to enjoy the things he couldn't while working to support his family. But he says an increasingly unsympathetic state and city are threatening his financial security.

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"I financially do not know where I will be," Miller said. "I am concerned about current seniors who are taking hits from the state and other places."

Miller retired as a computer programmer. He spent 20 years with the Alaska Department of Labor and five with the Department of Revenue. Now in his 50s, he said it will be about eight years until he reaches the age to enjoy the benefits of the senior sales tax exemption. He retired on a fixed income and figured he had built up a pretty solid nest egg.

Miller is chairman of the Retired Public Employees of Alaska's Southeast Chapter, who recently passed a resolution opposing the removal of the sales tax exemption. He said Juneau seniors number about 2,220 and will lose $3,000 from their purchasing power each year, among many losses.

"When you add these together and consider the loss of the state longevity bonus you can see that the seniors have lost a huge amount of purchasing power," Miller said. "Many of these seniors built the city we have today."

Longevity bonuses, started in 1972, were monthly payments of up to $250 to Alaska's senior citizens 65 and older. The program ended in 2003 as the Murkowski administration cut costs.

A task force charged by the Juneau Finance Committee with developing an option to eliminate the controversial senior sales tax exemption is asking the public to comment on five possible options. Chairman Randy Wanamaker said all proposed options eliminate exemptions for nonresidents of Juneau.

Wanamaker, a Juneau Assembly member, said the five options are: grandfather in eligible Juneau seniors; offer a rebate for eligible Juneau seniors; give an exemption for low income Juneau seniors; offer a rebate for low income seniors; or replace the exemption with payments to Juneau seniors.

Senior sales tax exemption task force hearings: when where

Today: 11:30 am to 1 p.m.: Juneau senior center dining room

Tuesday: 11:30 am to 1 p.m.: Assembly chambers

Thursday: 5 to 5:30 p.m.: Douglas library conference room

Friday: 5 to 5:30 p.m.: Mendenhall valley library conference room

The sales tax exemption led to $1.3 million of uncollected revenue in 2005, Wanamaker said. He estimates about 1,400 to 1,700 seniors may take part in the program next year. Wanamaker said the task force has a difficult decision to make, but seniors' property tax exemption is not at stake.

"There was about $1.7 million in uncollected revenues due to the state-mandated property tax exemption," Wanamaker said. "Staff has reported seniors own about $150 million worth of property in Juneau."

The two programs have led to $3 million in uncollected revenue, Wanamaker said. All options considered require seniors live here year round, he said.

"We have had seniors tell us they do not want the exemption to continue, while others have thanked us for having it and admitted it may be time to end the program," Wanamaker said. "Other seniors have said, 'If you want to end the exemption then don't continue with obvious money losers the city subsidizes, such as Eaglecrest (Ski Area).'"

Juneau Committee on Aging Chairwoman Lorilyn Swanson is also member of the task force. She hears from many seniors saying there should be no changes, she said. The JCOA has sent resolutions stating that there should be no changes and most recently a petition has come to her attention with nearly 800 names objecting to the senior sales tax.

"I cannot emphasize how extremely important it is that seniors and their families make the time to attend the hearings scheduled for the next 10 days to voice their opinions," Swanson said.

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