The often-made argument that property taxes unfairly burden the elderly may have gained support with a recent report: according to the State Independent Fiscal Office, statewide 43.8 percent of all homestead property tax money is paid by those 60 or older.
But the same report has data that suggests younger homeowners are bearing a slightly bigger burden than seniors. While the IFO estimated seniors pay 43.8 percent of the taxes, it also found they own 45.5 percent of the households. That would mean they are paying a bit less in property taxes per household then other homeowners. The IFO report speculates that may be the result of older people downsizing as their children leave, moving into smaller homes assessed at a lower tax value.
The report, made in response to a request by State Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks County, was done to determine how many homesteads are owned by people 60 or older, 65 or older, and 70 or older. Because no such data is uniformly collected at the local, county or state level, the IFO relied on information provided by the U.S. Census through its American Community Survey 1-year Public Use Microdata Survey, or PUMS.
The PUMS data showed the percent of homes owned by seniors declines with age, from 45.5 percent for those 60 and older to 32.9 percent for those 65 or over and then to 21.9 percent for those 70 or over. In all three age groups, the share of total property tax is slightly lower than the share of households owned.
The report does not break down the information by county because the 1-year PUMS data is not that fine-grained. But a November IFO report using 5-year census survey data did offer county details. Some numbers from that report:
• Statewide, 29.3 percent of homesteads — properties occupied by the owner — belonged to someone 65 or older. In Luzerne County, their share of homesteads was considerably higher at 32.5 percent. In neighboring Lackawanna and Wyoming Counties the rates were 31.5 percent and 31.3 percent respectively.
• The average school district property tax bill for homeowners state wide was $2,291. In Luzerne County, it was $1,223, while it was $1,487 in Lackawanna County and $1,819 in Wyoming County.
• Statewide, 17.2 percent of school property taxes went toward paying off school district debts. In Luzerne County, debt service ate up 18.2 percent of total property tax spending by school districts. In Lackawanna and Wyoming Counties, debt service was 14.1 percent and 13.2 percent.
Debt service is important because one proposal working through the state legislature would eliminate most taxes for both commercial and residential properties, but would allow school districts to continue levying a local property tax until all existing debt was paid off.