Freeze much-needed for our graying state

On May 15, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

By STATE SEN. MARK NORRIS • Tennessean.com
May 15, 2008

In a poignant moment in his State of the State address last January, Gov. Phil Bredesen acknowledged his mother’s desire to stay in her home:

“I’ve seen how much you want to be in your own home; I know how difficult that would have been … without some help. … If you want to stay in your home … this is the year we’re going to start making it easier.”

Actually, the General Assembly began the long process of making it easier for senior citizens on fixed incomes to stay in their homes three years ago. Unfortunately, the majority of local municipal and county governments in Tennessee have yet to do so.

I proudly sponsored the referendum to amend our state constitution permitting local governments to freeze property taxes in 2005. Nearly 1.4 million Tennesseans ratified the constitutional amendment in 2006. The following year, I sponsored the enabling legislation, the Property Tax Freeze Act of 2007, for cities and counties to put the freeze in place. Seniors with combined incomes below the median income of their county of residence qualify, but it is all to no avail if their local elected officials fail to adopt the program.

The recent state Senate passage of the The Long-Term Care Community Choices Act of 2008 is the latest chapter in “the graying of Tennessee.” As we age, it is increasingly important our homes not be taken for taxes. This is especially true when it comes to health care and our efforts to provide more cost-effective and better care in that home as opposed to a nursing home.

Local officials should act

Despite the recognition that home- and community-based care are preferable to institutionalized care, and notwithstanding the fact that nearly 83 percent of Tennesseans voted to make local property tax freezes for senior citizens a reality, city and county governments are moving very slowly to embrace the need. As of this writing, only 14 local governments across the state have done so.

Some local governments’ excuse for not adopting tax relief is a concern that doing so for seniors shifts tax burdens to younger Tennesseans. But consider the costs if they don’t.

For every dollar that could be spent serving the elderly and people with disabilities at home, Tennessee currently spends $149 on nursing-home care alone. The annual cost of nursing-home care exceeds $58,000 per person compared to $36,000 for home and community-based care. Nursing-home care now costs Tennesseans nearly $1 billion per year. With the population of senior citizens projected to double to more than 1.5 million in the next 15 years, that is the cost that should concern local governments the most.

Adopting the property tax freeze for seniors should be a priority for local governments. It is an integral part of our effort to preserve the home, improve the quality of life for an increasing number of Tennesseans, and respect the dignity of those who have earned it. I invite you to visit www.tennesseniors.com to learn more.

State Sen. Mark Norris is a Republican from Collierville.

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