"Very forward thinking" is how Priscilla Ames, a retired Reston resident who lives in a condominium, describes the county’s expanded real estate tax relief program for homeowners who are senior citizens or who have disabilities.
"An awful lot of seniors live in houses they’ve owned all these years," said Ames. "And I know that the county wants its seniors to be able to continue living here."
For seniors and people with disabilities, many living on fixed incomes, the rising tax burden due to the five-year housing boom has forced tough decisions, sometimes relocations. This was one of the reasons the county reduced the tax rate by 13 cents this past year. While the rate went down, the average homeowner in Fairfax county paid $4,448 in property taxes this year, 11 percent more than last year, because of increasing home values and assessments.
To lighten the load, the Fairfax County supervisors last month pumped an additional $5.8 million into real estate tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities as part of spending decisions for the $46.6 million budget surplus.
Those 65 or older and those with disabilities will now be eligible for relief if they have a household income less than $72,000 and net assets less than $340,000, excluding the value of the residence and up to one acre of land. Before the change, the income limit was $52,000, and net asset limit was $240,000.
TAKING EFFECT THIS month, the tax relief expansion is expected to assist an additional 3,300 people, said Kevin Greenlief, director of the county’s Department of Tax Administration. Also, about 900 existing applicants, who will not be required to reapply, will receive additional relief because of the change. The new eligibility requirements for tax relief will allow the county to provide relief to more than 8,900 residents. Of the $3.1 billion county general fund, a total of $24.6 million has now been dedicated to tax relief.
"These are the people who have contributed over the years — sometimes over-contributed with volunteering efforts and activity in the community and have paid for the schools and other services — and they should be here to enjoy their remaining years," said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).
Some supervisors, like Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, expressed interest in providing even more relief for them, but the county was restrained by state limits.
The county needs to devise tax relief plans for others in the county who are also feeling the burden of rising real estate taxes, especially people just entering the housing market, Hudgins said. She would like to see the county staff create a way to offer property tax reductions to other segments of the community. "What we’d love to do is have a better tool so that we could reach people that are not in the specialized categories," said Hudgins, referring to people in the entry-housing market. "Some of them may never see incomes of $72,000."
Ames, who is impressed with the level of services and programs for senior citizens, agrees. "I think young people are suffering from [rising real estate taxes], too," said Ames. "Couldn’t [the county] focus on young people just starting out?"
The county is limited to targeted tax relief specifically permitted by the General Assembly.
FOR THE PAST few months, the Department of Tax Administration has conducted a marketing campaign to spread the word to those who may be eligible for relief. The office has used direct mail, advertising and flyers to reach targeted populations, said Greenlief.
The effort seems to be working. Ames said she first heard about the change in the Golden Gazette, a monthly free paper published by the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging.
The outreach effort is needed, said Greenlief, because people who might be eligible are required to file an application. "It’s our goal to broadly disseminate the program," said Greenlief. "Certainly, if someone is eligible for the program, we want them to be aware of it."
Residents can call for an application at 703-222-8234, request by e-mail, or download the tax relief application from the website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dta/tax_relief.htm. Those with hearing impairments may call TTY: 703-222-7594. The deadline for applications for 2005 tax relief has been extended to Dec. 31, 2006, said Greenlief.