Selma seniors protest against state cuts

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Ira Sather-Olson
Selma Enterprise

With signs in hand and horns honking from passersby, a total of 21 Selma senior citizens converged onto the Veteran's Plaza last week to protest the recent cut of a statewide tax rebate program. And though it only lasted for 20 minutes, those Selma seniors that gathered at 2 p.m. Nov. 19 made their grievances loud and clear. One such protester included 65-year-old Janie Leos, who was rallying because she was expecting a check for almost $350 from the state's Homeowner and Renter Assistance program. This fund provides a once-a-year tax credit to renters or homeowners including low-income citizens, seniors, the blind and the disabled.

But because of a $190 million line item cut to the program by Gov. Schwarzenegger -- which was done in September in order to close the then $15.2 billion state budget shortfall -- Leos and thousands of other citizens around the state didn't receive assistance this year.

"I need the money for the bills," Leos said, noting this included her rent and PG&E bill.

Leos and the 20 other Selma seniors who protested on Nov. 19 are just a handful of the estimated 600,000 citizens in California who applied or will apply for this assistance but won't be getting it, according to Jacob Roper, public information officer for the California State Controller's office.

Those seniors in Selma who protested against the rebate cut weren't alone either. Similar rallies were held in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles on the same day.

But in Selma, citizens like Leos said the cut has hit her finances hard, especially since she lives on a fixed income of around $800 a month.

It's a similar situation for Selma resident Felipe Madrigal, 82, who said he was going to spend the $170 he would've gotten back on his rent.

"I was depending on it," he said.

For his part, Madrigal thinks that senior citizens always seem to get a bad deal when it comes to state budget decisions.

"Why is it that they always -- when they're short of something in the budget -- the first group that they cut the budget is on the seniors, why?," he said.

Lauri Linder, program coordinator for the Selma Senior Center, has roughly estimated that as many as 350 seniors in Selma could be effected by this funding cut.

Although figures for Selma were not available for 2007 or 2008, countywide statistics from 2007 indicate that several thousand citizens could feel the effects.

According to figures provided by Roper, just more than 15,200 claims were filed for renters in Fresno County in 2007. Of that, $4.9 million in assistance was provided.

For homeowners in 2007, the figure is slightly less at almost 4,900 claimants. The state paid $1.46 million in assistance to those residents.

Roper said countywide statistics for 2008 are not available because the state's Franchise Tax Board won't process existing applications until funding for the program is restored.

The program, which has existed since 1968, was first created to provide economic relief to low-income seniors, according to Roper.

Currently, the program provides rebates to eligible homeowners or renters based on a percentage of property taxes that they pay directly, if a homeowner, or indirectly, if a renter.

Back in Selma, those seniors who protested on Nov. 19, like 82-year-old Peggy Whittenberg, said she might protest again at some point in the future.

For her part, Whittenberg said she was supposed to receive a check for about $360 from the program.

"I was going to use it to pay my taxes this year," she said with a laugh.

Though, she was going to use it for other expenses too.

"It's going to cut me low for Christmas and things," Whittenberg said.

In her view, Whittenberg just wants Gov. Schwarzenegger to reinstate the program.

"I would like to see him put it back like it was," she said.

Those on the state level also believe it should be refunded.

"State Controller John Chiang continues to believe that relying on cuts alone to balance the budget puts thousands of disabled and elderly Californian's at risk," said Roper with the State Controller's Office in a written statement. "He has offered to work with the Legislative leadership to restore funding in a responsible manner."

California State Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, had previously said he was against the cuts and that the issue won't be able to be revisited until next year, during hearings for the 2009-2010 state budget.

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