2017-01-05 / Front Page

Volunteer program gives seniors tax relief

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

SACO – A volunteer program organized by the city gives Saco seniors the opportunity to serve the community and to earn relief from property taxes.

The Saco Volunteer Program has 49 volunteers, 35 of which are “tax volunteers,” as they are called, according to Mary Pelkey, the program’s coordinator. Many of the volunteers work at the Saco Transportation Center, providing information and assistance to travelers.

“They love the work because it’s very, very interesting, believe it or not,” Pelkey said.

The tax relief program, called the “Volunteer Citizen Work-off Program” in Saco, is allowed under Maine’s Taxpayer Benefit Programs statute, which states: “A municipality may by ordinance adopt a program that permits claimants who are at least 60 years of age to earn benefits up to a maximum of $750 by volunteering to provide services to the municipality.” It provides that benefits “must be related to the amount of volunteer service provided.”

Saco’s code of ordinances brought the program to the city in 2008. It requires participants be residents of Saco. Under the ordinance, the volunteers’ household income must not exceed the average median income for Maine. While Pelkey is the program’s coordinator, it is administered by Deputy Assessor Kate Kern.

According to Kern, volunteers need to complete 100 hours of approved volunteer work before a $750-abatement is applied to their property tax bill. The city council decides each year how much to fund the program, and thus how many tax volunteer slots are available, based on the recommendation of the assessor.

Although it is technically a state-wide program, Pelkey is not aware of any other Maine municipalities that use it. Although others have tax relief programs for seniors – Scarborough and Cumberland are examples – none of them connect the relief to volunteering. However, Pelkey said she was contacted by officials from Kennebunk in September, and that the town plans to start the program there. Kennebunk volunteers would contribute service to that town, as part of an independent program. She also said that Westbrook has expressed interest.

Beyond the tax relief program, volunteers say that the work is a worthwhile experience.

“I took the Downeaster from Maine to Boston three days a week when I was teaching as a professor at Boston University,” said volunteer Bill Lord. “It was a great tool, and I wanted to continue to help people who were interested in using the train.”

Lord said some of the volunteer work done at the train station is physically assisting people who may have difficulty with mobility in getting around the platform and station. He said otherwise that duty often falls to the conductors, who are pleased with the help because it allows them to keep up the train’s schedule.

Volunteers also provide information to travelers, including the train schedule and information about the Saco area, Pelkey said.

“It’d be frustrating for somebody coming in to Saco for the first time, and not knowing too much about getting around, and there’s no one there to answer their questions,” Lord said.

“You meet a lot of interesting people here,” said volunteer Maureen Clark, who is a 40-year resident of Saco.

Not all people who come into the transportation center are there to travel, Clark said. Some people sit and work on their laptops or watch the trains. She said people play Mahjong, a puzzle game. Some days a group of special needs youths visit and hang out.

“It’s helping out where we can,” Lord said. “If someone gets there and has no phone, we call a taxi for them.”

Lord added that there are other purposes that volunteers at the station serve. He often volunteers in the evening, he said, and it brings comfort to some people to not have to wait alone in the building at night.

Both Clark and Lord have volunteered at the transportation center since it opened in 2009. Clark is a tax volunteer, but Lord is not. Lord lives in Cape Porpoise. Clark said before she volunteered at the transportation center, she volunteered for the parks and recreation department at the soccer field.

Although Pelkey doesn’t often send volunteers to parks and recreation anymore, she said, there are a handful of other places in the city where volunteers and tax volunteers can serve. One tax volunteer works 100 hours at the fire station maintaining the floors some years because, Pelkey said, he had work experience fixing floors. Other volunteers work for various departments in city hall doing clerical or computer work, and during election season some volunteers serve the city clerk and help maintain order at polling places.

Pelkey said she will recruit new volunteers for the spring, starting soon. She sends a letter to all city departments asking if they have any work that could be done by volunteers, and then places newly recruited volunteers according to their experience and desires. Additionally, although she currently has 35 tax volunteers, Pelkey said she is approved for 40.

“I would prefer to have more people to apply than what we have slots for, because then we can create more positions,” Pelkey said.

Readers who want to learn more about the workof program or to apply to be a tax volunteer can visit the Assessor’s page of the city website at www.sacomaine.org/departments/assessor.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

FMI

To apply for the Work-off program, visit www.sacomaine.org/ departments/assessor.

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