Catherine Gitkov speaks against the ordinance to eliminate the senior tax exemption at the Juneau Assembly meeting on Monday. City staff in the background are Deputy City Manager Rob Steedle, left, City Manager Kim Kiefer, center, and City Attorney Amy Mead.

Catherine Gitkov speaks against the ordinance to eliminate the senior tax exemption at the Juneau Assembly meeting on Monday. City staff in the background are Deputy City Manager Rob Steedle, left, City Manager Kim Kiefer, center, and City Attorney Amy Mead.

City restricts senior tax exemptions

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly passed an ordinance restricting the senior sales tax exemption during a meeting Monday night, despite nearly two hours of testimony from seniors, many of whom opposed the measure.

The silver tsunami hit City Hall in full force as seniors packed the Assembly Chambers and tried to convince Assembly members to scrap the proposed changes to the tax exemption, which will limit the exemption to essential purchases for most seniors and introduce a needs-based rebate program.

About 100 seniors attended the meeting. Many had to listen to the meeting being broadcast live on the radio in an adjacent overflow room because fire code prevented all of the attendees from being able to gather in the chambers. Mayor Merrill Sanford had to limit public participation to two minutes per person due to the amount of seniors who wanted to testify.

Nearly 40 people spoke during the marathon public comment period, most of whom voiced opposition.

“There are things that draw people to Juneau and things that push them away,” said Frieda Westman, grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

The message from most of the speakers was clear: changing the senior sales tax exemption would push people away. More than a dozen seniors threatened to leave the city if the Assembly passed the ordinance, and many also threatened to stop donating and volunteering.

Other people who spoke out against the ordinance proposed putting the ordinance to a vote or cutting other costs to save the tax exemption.

“If you want this to have some impact and some meaning you need to bring this to a public vote,” said John Cooper, speaking to the Assembly. “Just because there are kids in this community doesn’t mean that I should pay for their ball fields and their skiing.”

Cooper’s brief testimony elicited cheers from the packed chambers and a stern response from Sanford who requested that people remain quiet to speed the meeting along. 

Not all of the people who spoke opposed restricting the senior sales tax, and not all of the speakers were seniors. About a fifth of those who spoke supported the proposed changes to the exemption.

Arnold Liebelt spoke on behalf of the ordinance, saying that it is about more than just seniors although he recognized that they would be most heavily impacted by it.

“I see this as a community issue, I don’t see this as a senior issue,” Liebelt said. “The working class is strapped, and there has to be a community solution. There’s no silver bullet. This is just one piece.”

Assembly member Karen Crane echoed Liebelt’s point later in the meeting before motioning to adopt the ordinance. 

“We have tried to be as fair as possible,” Crane said. “It’s not just about seniors. It’s about young families, too.”

The motion passed 7-2. The only Assembly members to oppose Crane’s motion were Mary Becker and Mayor Sanford.

“I think it’s very unfair, and I think it’s putting a tax on one group of people,” Becker said.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, the sales tax exemption will be limited to “essential purchases” only.

These include food, heating fuel, electricity and CBJ water and wastewater utilities.

The ordinance was amended by Assembly member Debbie White to include garbage utilities as an “essential purchase,” so these utilities will remain tax free for all seniors as well.

The restrictions will only be applicable to seniors making more than two and a half times the federal poverty level. Seniors living on an income less than that will continue to benefit from the tax exemption, albeit in a slightly different way.

All seniors will be required to pay sales tax at the point of sale on any nonessential items beginning on the first of next year, but a senior couple making less than $49,800 per year will be eligible for a tax rebate calculated based on income.

Rebates will be awarded annually in September. The maximum rebate for a single senior will be $325. For a married couple, it will be $650.

More in News

Aurora Forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Feb. 5

Folks at the Alaska State Capitol openly admit to plenty of fish tales, but to a large degree in ways intended to benefit residents and sometimes even the fish. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
The bizarre bills other state legislatures are considering

Alaska’s Legislature isn’t mulling the headline-grabbers some statehouses have in the works.

This photo shows snow-covered hills in the Porcupine River Tundra in the Yukon Territories, Canada. In July 1997, a hunter contacted troopers in Fairbanks, Alaska, and reported finding a human skull along the Porcupine River, around 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the Canadian border. Investigators used genetic genealogy to help identify the remains as those of Gary Frank Sotherden, according to a statement Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, from Alaska State Troopers. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)
Skull found in ‘97 in Interior belongs to New York man

A skull found in a remote part of Alaska’s Interior in 1997… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Officer William Hicks stands with JPD Chief Ed Mercer and Deputy Chief David Campbell during a swearing in ceremony for Hicks on Thursday at the JPD station in Lemon Creek. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
New officer joins JPD’s ranks

The Juneau Police Department welcomed a new officer to its ranks Thursday… Continue reading

These photos show Nova, a 3-year-old golden retriever, and the illegally placed body hold trap, commonly referred to as a Conibear trap, that caught her while walking near Outer Point Trail last week. (Courtesy / Jessica Davis)
Dog narrowly survives rare illegally placed trap in Juneau

State wildlife officials outlined what to do if found in similar situation

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Public defender agency to refuse some cases, citing staffing

ANCHORAGE — A state agency that represents Alaskans who cannot afford their… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police: Gift card scam connected to hoax Fred Meyer threats

This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall. A… Continue reading

This is a concept design drawing that was included in the request for proposal sent out by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities seeking outside engineering and design services to determine whether it’s feasible to build a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
DOT takes steps toward potential Cascade Point ferry terminal facility

It would accommodate the Tazlina and or Hubbard, shorten trips to Haines and Skagway

Most Read