The Sitka assembly moved no closer to eliminating the senior citizen sales tax exemption during its regular meeting last night (3-13-12).

Residents opposed to repealing the exemption were out in force, as were some proponents.

Due to a short-handed assembly, changes to the Fish Box Tax were also put on hold.

Only five members of the assembly were present, with vice-deputy mayor Thor Christianson presiding.

With a such a thin margin of possible victory or defeat for the controversial tax questions, Christianson invited the assembly to postpone final action on the proposed revision of the sales tax ordinance. They consented, but not before hearing from seniors on the measure.

So many people had turned out to testify that Christianson decided to open the floor. Here’s a little of what was said.

Bob Schell – The parameters set up under the proposed exemption – and to me this is a very important thing – are based on Adjusted Gross Income. Using this figure, the largest expense of many seniors goes unrecognized: medical. One of my friends has a yearly, $5,000 prescription drug expense, after Medicare…
Kathy Kyle – If we are to have an income or needs-base exemption, then it shouldn’t be based on age. Maybe instead of giving the exemption to seniors who have double the poverty level, we should give it to anyone who’s at or below the poverty level…
Ward Eldridge – I’m not as young as I used to be, but I still have a vestige of pride. And frankly, it burns my butt to think that a whole lot of young people – who also suffer just as much as the rest of us – have to subsidize us…
Tom Pratt – Sitka, according to your McDowell Report, is one of the most expensive places to live, especially for retired and fixed-income Sitkans. I’m not sure who you’ve been talking to, but the impact of even a few cents here and there is a real deal-breaker for some of our seniors. Your proposed fixed is embarrassing, insulting, and beneath the dignity of our seniors.
Don Jones — …and table it to give very serious consideration to the repeal of taxes on food for everyone. Period. Taxes on food impact the young as well as the elderly…
Shirley Robards – I worked two or three jobs so that we could get to where we are today. Yes, I feel sorry for the younger people, but they’ve got to work just as hard as I do. I’m 76 years old and I work seven days a week.

Several members of the public alluded to remarks made at a previous meeting that the current senior exemption program was subject to abuse.

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett responded that abuse was not her major concern; rather, Sitka’s changing makeup.

“It’s very hard for young people to come here and make it. We think it’s expensive for the seniors who have already – we’ve already amassed our wealth, we have our homes – generally speaking – we’ve already gotten to that point, and young people today may never get there, which I find distressing. I don’t believe our young population can support our aging demographic.”

Mike Reif also felt that the economic ground had shifted since the senior exemption was created in the 1970s, in order to provide incentive for retired residents to remain in town.

“When sales tax was initiated in this town many decades ago, things were way, way different: We’re an island and we were separated. People had to buy locally. They didn’t have alternatives. This economy is so drastically different. We have the internet, the big box stores, free shipping. And many small communities are having to deal with those outside influences that are eroding their tax bases.”

Reif said communities were trying to be proactive about sustaining services in the changing environment.

Thor Christianson, the ordinance sponsor, reminded the audience that he proposed the current measure as an alternative to a $300 senior rebate. He did not necessarily consider it the final idea.

The assembly will revisit the tax again at its next regular meeting on March 27 – along with proposed changes to the $10 Fish Box Tax. Several members have pledged not to support any change to the tax structure until seeing a draft of the municipal budget that contains cuts.