Towns have long struggled with how to help residents facing rising property taxes, especially when they are the result of an unexpected increase in property value. The State Constitution requires town expenses be spread out equally between property owners based on the estimated fair market value of their property.

The more your property is worth, the more you pay in taxes. On the surface it seems perfectly fair, but only if you view your home as more of an investment than a place to live. To the person who has no desire to sell their home, the news it has doubled in value is not often cause for celebration when it comes with a commensurate increase in taxes. This is especially true for people with a fixed income.

Increased property value does not always mean increased taxes. This is only true if your property increases in value by more than the average increase seen across the entire town. For example, all other things remaining equal (like spending), if the total value of property in Camden increases by 15% and your property value only increases by 10%, your taxes will go down. If your property value increases by more than 15%, your taxes will go up.

Sometimes taxes go up because the total value of the properties in a town decreases, but the amount the town is spending on services remains unchanged. Sometimes the value of the town’s properties stays the same, but spending goes up. Whatever the cause, they mostly seem to go up.

All kinds of things contribute to taxes and most of them are predictable based on what the townspeople vote to spend. When we vote to build new schools, pave roads, and employ more police officers, we often stop to think about the impact it will have on our property taxes.

For generations, small town democracies like ours have argued over what to spend our money on. People without children in the school system have notoriously questioned why they should have to pay for education while others question the town’s spending on sidewalks or parking lots they don’t personally use. While some services must be provided by state mandate, we settle other disputes by majority vote.

Over the years, it has become popular to blame the people from away for the rise in property taxes, saying they insist on necessities we never used to need like new schools or tennis courts, but, to the contrary, their heavy investment in very expensive building and renovation projects has meant that much of the tax burden is carried by high valued buildings.

Most people in Camden who are truly suffering from an increase in taxes are there because the land their home sits on is worth a lot more than it used to be. Location is everything.

While it used to be some neighborhoods were filled only with very low value homes that were just undesirable enough to keep them affordable, it appears all bets are off in Camden. The fact you have a modest home does not mean the value of your property is modest. Location is slowly becoming just as important as the building that sits there when determining the value of a property.

In this last round of revaluations in Camden, it was found virtually all properties increased in value but homes in the lower price bracket increased by a much larger percentage than properties that were already at a very high value.

This is concerning for people on a fixed income, and its one of the many reasons why the Legislature was moved to pass LD 290, “An Act To Stabilize Property Taxes for Individuals 65 Years of Age or Older Who Own a Homestead for at Least 10 Years.”

Maine residents 65 or older who have owned a home for at least 10 years may apply to have their property tax bill frozen. Whatever amount was paid in property taxes during the year in which the stabilization was first requested is the amount they will continue to pay for as long as they continue to own a home in Maine.

Senior citizens will never again have to worry that voting to build a new school will increase their taxes. In fact, nearly 20% of Mainers and over 30% of Camden residents may never again have to worry about their property taxes going up at all, no matter how much new spending they vote for.

But what about the rest of us? The state has promised to pick up the difference between what the property owner would have paid and the frozen amount they will pay going forward.

I’m of two minds about this new law. On one hand, I welcome action on an issue that has been stuck in the conversation spin cycle for far too long. I want to make sure we scream from the rooftops to get this information to the people who most need it.

As with many things, those most in need of property tax relief may be the least likely to have the time to go searching for it. Reach out to your neighbors that are 65 and older and encourage them to contact the Assessing Department.

The other side of me knows there is no such thing as a free lunch and it’s going to end up costing the state (meaning all of us) a lot of money. A lot of people who need help will get it but a lot who don’t need help will also get relief. I also don’t believe in completely disconnecting the voting we do on town expenditures from the shared cost of implementation. Those of us who are younger than 65 shouldn’t be the only ones to feel the impact of spending decisions all residents will get to vote on.

The Town of Camden does have programs to help people who are struggling to stay in their homes and are willing to provide income and asset verification. That help is dependent on need and not age, which makes a lot more sense in a town like Camden. A state program that takes into consideration the ability of the person to pay their taxes would be much better, in my opinion.

However, the perfect is sometimes the enemy of the good, and for the meantime, I hope to focus on making sure people know about the opportunity that exists now.

Please help spread the word. The filing deadline is Dec. 1, 2022, and more information, as well as the application that needs to be filled out, can be found here: https://www.maine.gov/revenue/taxes/tax-relief-credits-programs/property-tax-relief-programs/stabilization-program.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board Vice-Chair. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.