Balancing Budget Has Its Costs

Monday, November 24, 2008
Zachary Johnson

The blindness that hit Blendina Scherr, 84, more than 10 years ago wasn't total, but she still needs someone to read her mail for her.

There's a device - a sort of overhead projector - that immediately displays bills or any other printed material on a computer screen in characters large enough for Scherr to read. Its purchase would buy Scherr more independence, but at $2,500, it's a hefty sum for someone living on a fixed income, she said.

But the elimination of funding for a program to give property tax rebates to seniors, the blind and the disabled to help balance the state budget puts the device out of Scherr's reach, she said.

Like others of the more than half-million Californians who applied for the rebate this year, she got a letter from the state saying the money wouldn't be coming.

"I was sick. It was kind of sad that they take that away from you," she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated funding for the $191 million program during a series of vetoes cutting $510 million from the state spending plan for the current fiscal year.

The rebates were eligible to property owners and renters who qualified if they were seniors, blind or disabled and had a total household income of less than $45,000, according to the state. The actual rebate varied, based on income, and averaged $300.

"That's practically a whole month's income for some people," said Nan Brasmer, a Manteca resident and president of the California Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy group for seniors. Rising prices and cuts to services is hurting seniors in the state, she said. "Then they get this whammy with the (rebate)."

As this year's state budget took shape in September, the size of the reserve was dangerously low if the state was going to be prepared to bear the cost of fighting wildfires and bracing ongoing budget struggles, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

"It forced the governor to make some very difficult decisions," he said.

Homeowners may still be eligible for the state's Property Tax Deferral Program, which has similar eligibility requirements, only it serves households with incomes less than $35,500.

The cuts took away money from people who need the help the most, said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a San Francisco-based renters rights group that kicked off a statewide push last week protesting the cuts, including public demonstration, news conferences, starting a petition and encouraging people to call and e-mail the governor.

"It's outrageous that he wants to target this population," Preston said.

Betty June Malarkey, 80 and a renter who lives in Galt, said she uses the rebate to get something a little extra - one year it was a microwave, this year it would have helped her buy Christmas presents for her 14 grandchildren and soon-to-be 19 great-grandchildren.

Money's tight in the family this year, so the loss of the rebate will be tough, but not a surprise, she said.

"When the (state) budget goes crazy, they don't have any choice. But it really does hurt people," she said.



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