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Official urges plan to hire senior citizens

Senior citizens who can't pay rising county taxes should be given the chance to work off part of their debt, Hernando County Commissioner June Ester proposed Tuesday. Ester suggested that the county establish a program in departments that would hire interested seniors instead of temporary employees during times when extra help is needed. The senior workers, who would be paid the minimum wage of $3.80 an hour, would use their salaries to pay off their property taxes, Ester said.

She said the workers could answer telephones, file documents, stuff envelopes or perform other tasks. "Basically, it is for senior citizens who end up on fixed incomes that are smaller than they anticipated," Ester said.

The commission instructed County Administrator Chuck Hetrick to study Ester's proposal and design a program to implement it. But Ester's colleagues were less than enthusiastic about her idea.

"At the risk of sounding like I'm against motherhood and apple pie ... this program, I see a lot of problems with it," Commissioner Harold Varvel said.

He said he is sensitive to the needy, regardless of age. But Varvel said the county takes on potentially costly responsibilities such as insurance and worker's compensation when it employees people.

Commissioner Richard Killingsworth said private businesses are providing jobs for seniors who need more money or want to feel useful. He said he was afraid a county program would result in senior citizens on the payroll doing make-work jobs or performing tasks that other people would do normally.

"I'm not saying it can't work. I'm just saying it could be quite complicated," Killingsworth said.

But several of the senior citizens who attended the meeting Tuesday spoke in favor of Ester's proposal.

"June, I agree with you 100 percent," said Spring Hill resident Peggy Cartwright. "I think it would be a good upper for the elderly to feel like they are needed."

According to Ester's proposal, the seniors in the program would be eligible to work until they have earned enough to pay the county share of their tax bill, up to a maximum of 80 hours _ or $304 _ a year. Property taxes levied by other governments, such as the School Board, would not be counted in the program.

Any Hernando resident ages 60 or older who lives in the house on which the taxes are owed would be eligible, Ester said.

There would be no financial eligibility rules for participants, Ester said. But that suggestion was harshly criticized by some commissioners who said such a program should be open only to the truly needy not those who just want a few extra dollars.

Ester said the Senior Tax Work-Off Program was founded in Boulder County, Colo., in 1986. The popular program has won a number of awards, including first place in the 1988 Denver Regional Council of Governments Innovations Awards program and a National Association of Counties' achievement award.

Ester said it was one way for the county to help seniors who are seeing taxes take a larger and larger chunk of their incomes. "I think you should give these folks a break," she said.

But the best way to help those people, Varvel said in an interview, is to keep county taxes as low as possible. And, said Killingsworth: "This is one of those things that is going to cost money."