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Tax relief bill for seniors in W.Va. clears hurdle

February 14, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A bill backed by area lawmakers to give tax relief to elderly residents, particularly those now facing skyrocketing property tax bills in the Eastern Panhandle, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday on a voice vote, according to state Sen. John Yoder, the bill's lead sponsor.

If enacted, Senate Bill 53 would allow county commissions across the state to decide whether to allow residents ages 65 and older to avoid paying increases in residential property taxes during the remaining years of their life. Property owners would have to be state residents for at least five years and the tax increases normally applied would be "recaptured" by the state upon the sale or transfer of the person's home.

Yoder, R-Jefferson, said fellow Judiciary Committee members decided on Tuesday that the bill should also include a "needs test" that would require residents to petition their county commissioners for the deferment and demonstrate a financial hardship caused by property tax increases.

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State Sen. John Unger said Tuesday that he didn't like the deferred tax recapture aspect of the legislation, but still joined Yoder and Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, and Mike Hall, R-Putnam, in sponsoring it.

"I thought it would bring some immediate relief to those seniors who are hurting in our area," Unger said of his support of the legislation.

Unger described the deferment as being "almost like having a lien on your house" and viewed the legislation as a short-term solution in place of adjustments to the homestead exemption, a $20,000 deduction for property owners ages 65 and older.

In an interview Tuesday, Berkeley County Assessor Preston B. Gooden confirmed he was scheduled to testify before the Judiciary Committee in support of Yoder's bill, but nixed the appearance because of the impending winter storm.

"I feel very bad that I couldn't speak (to the committee)," Gooden said. "We need to do something for our seniors."

Gooden said older residents have come into his office and cried "real tears" because of the increases to their property taxes.

In a news release Tuesday, Yoder noted that seniors are often stressed by costly medical bills that come in addition to the financial burdens of daily life, all the while trying to exist on fixed incomes.

"This bill will help ensure that seniors can continue living in the houses they own without being forced to sell their houses to pay unreasonable property taxes," Yoder said.

For the 2007 tax year, Gooden said the total assessed value of residential property in Berkeley County that qualified for the homestead exemption for elderly residents increased by about $3.6 million to $108.7 million, but he could not estimate how many residents that included.

"(Senate Bill 53) would not hurt the tax base here at all," said Gooden, who like area lawmakers has backed unsuccessful efforts to increase the homestead exemption.

Officials from counties that do not have a growing tax base have objected to increasing the exemption, citing the potential loss of tax revenue. The assessed value of Berkeley County real estate for the 2007 tax year increased by more than $800 million over the previous year to nearly $4.3 billion, Gooden said.

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