Losing the longevity bonus

As deadline for last check approaches, seniors look for answers

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

For some of the state's 18,000 seniors who receive longevity bonuses, August's final check may mean fewer trips in the future to see family in the Lower 48.

For others, loss of the monthly income may mean moving to the Lower 48 because they can't afford to stay in Alaska.

Since its creation in 1972, the Longevity Bonus Program has provided Alaskans 65 and older with monthly checks of up to $250.

Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed funding for the $45 million program last month as a cost-saving measure to the state. The program started as an effort to reward seniors who had been around since statehood, but as it grew more expensive and as oil revenue began to decline, the Legislature changed the program to stop accepting new recipients in 1997.

At the Juneau Senior Center downtown, many recipients of the bonus gather daily for a free lunch and a little camaraderie.

Over a steaming bowl of chicken pot pie, Ruth Kenworthy, 83, who lives next door at the Mountain View Apartments, explained losing the bonus won't leave her in dire straits - but it probably will keep her from doing some of the things she used to do.

"I don't require too much for myself for entertainment," said Kenworthy, who was left partially disabled four years ago after suffering a stroke. "But I won't be able to give presents and help my grandchildren."

Kenworthy, who receives a $250 longevity bonus check each month, has lived in Alaska since 1950. Over the years she has worked as a teacher in Eagle, a small community northeast of Tok on the Yukon River, and for the state Department of Labor and the Division of Occupational Safety.

"I'm fortunate because I receive retirement from the state and Social Security," she said.

Kenworthy, however, noted that some of her friends at Mountain View are thinking of leaving the state.

"Some said they would have to move down south because they can't afford the rent," she said.

Mountain View Apartments provides about 80 of the 583 senior housing units across the state that are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Sherrie Simmonds, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

Seniors who live in subsidized housing such as Mountain View pay a third of their adjusted gross income in rent. That includes income received through the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program and the Longevity Bonus Program.

As a result, the percentage of rent covered by the state through longevity bonus money will be passed on to the federal government, Simmonds said.

"Since their income goes down, the amount of rent they pay will go down and the subsidy from HUD will increase," she said.

Simmonds said the demand for subsidized housing for seniors likely will increase once the bonus program ends next month. The change likely will be taxing for a senior housing program that is already maxed out statewide. The waiting list for senior housing in Juneau is 11 people, but Simmonds noted that the turnover can be as quick as a few weeks or a few months.

Subsidized housing could be the fate for some in Juneau who say the loss of the longevity bonus will make it hard to keep up with property taxes.

Connie Paddock, 83, a former chief clerk for the state House of Representatives, eats lunch at the Juneau Senior Center every Tuesday and Thursday and receives $250 a month in her longevity bonus check.

She said cutting the program could put her in jeopardy of losing the house where she has lived for the past 38 years.

"I live in my own home and use the money to pay my property taxes," she said, noting that she pays about $1,500 to $1,800 a year in taxes. "I would hate to give up my home."

In order to accommodate the loss of her bonus, Paddock said she'll have to "cut corners," such as going out less and giving less to her church.

But while trying to figure out how to deal with her own hardships through losing the checks, Paddock said she is worried about those who rely on the money for food and medication.

"I'm more concerned about some of the people who live in villages up north in the Interior," she said.

The state Department of Health and Social Services is working to ease the pain to seniors through a 10-month program that begins in September of this year, the month following the end of the longevity bonuses.

The Alaska Senior Assistance Program will use $10 million in one-time federal money to provide $120 checks to seniors through June 2004.

The program, developed by the Division of Public Assistance, will be eligible to individual seniors with annual incomes of up to $15,134 and to couples who earn up to $20,439.

Individuals can have up to $4,000 in cash and investments and couples up to $6,000 and still be eligible for the program.

"We are only going to count liquid assets," said Angela Salerno, program coordinator for the Division of Public Assistance. "Any real property - cars, snowmachines - will not count."

Real property also includes a home, she said.

The Department of Health and Social Services is holding public hearings on the program this month.

It will be available to all eligible seniors, including those who turned 65 after the eligibility window closed for the longevity bonus.

Once the Senior Assistance Program ends in June, seniors will have to find ways to accommodate the drop in income.

Salerno noted that those who received the longevity bonus but were not eligible for adult public assistance likely would not become eligible after losing the bonus. She said income from the bonus was not counted when determining eligibility for the public assistance program.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.

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