Metropolis: Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Jack O. Lewis, left, is spearheading the drive to freeze property taxes for senior citizens like Joe Jarzynka, right, who signs a petition at a Tarrant County subcourthouse.
Senior Freeze-Out

Capping taxes for the elderly pleases some and scares others.


Drizzling skies and more rain in the forecast didn’t scare off a handful of elderly folks soliciting signatures for a petition on a recent morning while standing in front a busy subcourthouse. Living on fixed incomes and having their pockets picked clean can make ardent activists out of most anyone, even those with creaky bones and ebbing energy.

“This petition drive is hard work, but it’s worth it,” said Jack O. Lewis, 70, the former mayor of Haltom City who helped pass an ordinance freezing senior citizens’ property taxes in that city and is now seeking support for a similar senior tax freeze countywide.

Lewis and a few other volunteers are seeking 40,000 signatures — equal to 5 percent of the county’s registered voters — on a petition to demand that a senior tax freeze be placed on an election ballot in November. If voters approve, local citizens 65 and older or disabled could claim an exemption that would cap county tax bills on their homesteads. Volunteers are tramping around Tarrant County, setting up tables at subcourthouses, voting sites, and various festivals, trying to beat the July 31 deadline to get signatures.

Their sales pitch is concise and a little misleading: Only if potential signers inquire are they told that the “tax freeze” being sought would affect only certain groups. Here’s how a volunteer described it in an e-mail provided by Lewis: “The technique we use is to approach those visiting the courthouses and ask them, ‘Have you signed the petition to freeze property taxes?’ If they say, ‘No,’ they are invited to sign the petition. If they start asking questions, we answer them. Along the way we mention that it affects senior citizens and the disabled.”

The effort is more than halfway to its goal, but 40,000 signatures is a bunch. It takes hours on end when so few people are doing the labor. This hard work wouldn’t be necessary if Tarrant County commissioners would voluntarily place a senior tax freeze on an election ballot. But commissioners won’t budge — they’re terrified that if they do, the voters will pass it.

Across the state, people in dozens of counties and cities have approved senior tax freezes in landslide victories. Another group is currently seeking signatures to force Fort Worth city leaders to put a senior tax freeze on a municipal election ballot. It’s not just blue-hairs who support these freezes — their children and grandchildren are casting ballots in favor as well.

County commissioners have reason to squirm. The little band of tax attackers appears well on its way to getting enough signatures to force an election. A freeze’s impact on the county budget is uncertain, but commissioners don’t want to find out — counties rely more heavily than cities on property taxes to fund law enforcement, jails, civil and family courts, and public health agencies.

“Property tax is the only source of [tax] income the county has,” Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “Unlike cities, we don’t get sales tax.”

County Judge Tom Vandergriff is 80 and has had trouble paying his property taxes, but he’s no poster boy for those wanting a freeze. He loathes the idea.

“I’m a senior citizen, and I don’t have any thoughts that this is an equitable route for us to follow,” he said. “Ownership of property is in the hands of people of all ages, and I don’t see how we can allow age to enter into the issue of whether the property is taxable or not. I’m not sympathetic with any such proposal.”

It’s a particular worry for public officials in this era of aging Baby Boomers. “Once you enact the senior tax freeze, it’s a permanent fixture of your tax structure, and you can’t eliminate it,” Brooks said. “Our population is growing more and more elderly. As more and more become eligible for the tax freeze, it’s going to create a tremendous burden on [other] taxpayers. ... It will shift an increasing burden to the balance of the taxpayers such that we will probably have to raise taxes at some point.”

Seniors aren’t awash in guilt. They argue that city, county, and state governments have proven themselves gluttons that mismanage and overspend. They lament bureaucratic red tape, redundancy, and waste. They see cities and counties giving tax abatements to corporate giants while using eminent domain and other methods to take the little guy’s property. They scorn a school district that allows millions of dollars to be stolen from under its nose — which leaves hardworking people paying through the nose. They blast lawmakers for succumbing to lobbyists and making sweetheart deals that line the pockets of the rich and burden the poor. They see governments demanding more and more taxes until seniors are forced from their homes.

Nope, these old folks don’t feel blameworthy and don’t seem concerned about possibly passing a greater burden on to younger taxpayers.

“We need a break; we’ve paid our fair share of taxes,” said Joe Jarzynka, 68, of Euless, who stopped to sign the petition on a recent Thursday morning.

While most of the signers that morning were elderly, a large number were young residents empathetic with their plight. A woman in her 40s signed because she knew elderly people whose property taxes grew so high that the homeowners were forced out. For instance, she knew a person who owed $10,000 in back taxes and couldn’t pay.

“What does the county do? They swoop in and take the house and sell it for $50,000. And does the county give the $40,000 difference back to the owner? No. That’s not right. That’s not America,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she worried about what her neighbors might think.

Gary Hardin, 47, signed the petition without any arm-twisting from volunteer Robert Smith. Afterward, Smith thanked him. Hardin, however, thanked the elderly volunteers for taking action. “This will affect my mom and dad,” he said.

Smith, 85, helped petition for a senior tax freeze in Arlington and is now intent on seeing a similar exemption passed for all of Tarrant County. “I’ve been paying taxes for 65 years; now I’d like a little relief,” he said.

Critics point out that an across-the-board freeze gives a financial break to wealthy seniors as well as those on small fixed incomes. Even Smith estimated that for every old person scraping by, another lives well and needs no tax relief. Elected officials agree.

“Most seniors are not destitute,” Brooks said, “but a tax freeze would apply to every senior, not just to those who need it. There are probably better ways to do the same thing, by perhaps a county homestead and senior exemption, which does not currently exist. It goes to an individual rather than a class of people.”

Commissioners, however, haven’t been pro-active about these alternatives, and residents are now attempting to force the issue. The scary part for elected officials is that voters favor tax breaks in general. When the 2003 amendment to the Texas Constitution that authorizes taxing entities to enact senior tax freezes was on the ballot, 81 percent of those who went to the polls in Texas and 87 percent in Tarrant County voted in favor.

When Brooks campaigned for the commissioner’s post in 2005, he promised seniors he would consider a tax freeze. Now some of them accuse him of selling them out, although he kept his promise. Commissioners did discuss a freeze and considered it a horrible idea for the county’s future.

“I became educated about the ramifications of the issue,” he said.

More education will follow if seniors have their way.

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