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Senior Daze

As the deadline to pay real estate taxes approaches, financially strapped seniors are holding on to their homes — barely.

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Jean Heath can't catch a break these days. She has a bad left knee that needs surgery, has perpetual asthma and recently learned her cat, Blackie, has feline HIV. Her kitchen table is adorned with a rack of white-and-tan medicine bottles.

The bills are piling up. To keep up, Heath had to take in a renter, Earl, whom she lovingly refers to as the "old goat." Earl's a nice old man in his 70s, she says, but he doesn't know how to use the washing machine or operate a vacuum. "He just doesn't have any common sense," she says, groaning.

But the real kick in the pants came last month, when she got her tax bill: a whopping $2,500. The real estate tax relief program that saved her $1,303.42 a year ago, about 50 percent of her bill in 2006, saves her only 25 percent this year. The end result: Her bill is more than $600 higher than she was anticipating.

A spry 71, with tennis shoes and a baseball cap, Heath gets around just fine on her fixed income — a mix of social security and pension from her old job at Lawyers Title, where she processed commercial loans. But another hit like this and she'll be forced finally to sell her house on West Grace Street and move out for good.

She isn't alone. As the June 15 deadline to pay real estate taxes approaches, senior citizens and disabled homeowners across the city are caught in the middle of yet another standoff between City Council and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

The tax-relief program for seniors has yet to be fully funded. Because of rising real estate assessments, about $3.6 million is needed for the program this year, but so far, the city has budgeted only $2 million. That means seniors 65 years old and older expecting to pay only a portion of their tax bills — the program uses a sliding scale, depending on the homeowner's income and assets — are getting an unpleasant surprise in the mail.

Many of them are holding out hope that City Council and the mayor's office will find the extra $1.6 million needed before it's too late.

"My next-door neighbor died because of these tax bills," says Jackie Snow, 57, who lives with her 80-year-old mother and acts as her personal assistant and financial adviser. Her bill is about $2,000, and she was expecting to pay only half that.

Unlike her neighbor — who was suffering from chronic medical illnesses that may have also contributed to her death — Snow's mother, Louise Thomas, has been living in her house on Nansemond Street for more than 30 years. Snow says they're waiting until the last minute to pay the tax man in hopes of getting more of a break from City Hall.

"The city is not doing nothing to help the citizen, especially these people who are in their 70s and 80s," Snow says. "They don't deserve the pressure."

City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, perhaps the most vocal proponent of the senior tax relief program, recently sent Mayor Wilder a letter pleading for full funding, adding that many of the 2,900 homeowners who aren't receiving the full rebate are simply incapable of paying their bills.

"From what I am told, many residents simply will not be able to pay the bill by June 15th. If they cannot pay the bill, they become delinquent and ineligible for relief this tax year," Graziano writes. "This Catch 22 means that our oldest, poorest, most disabled residents would be forced from their homes."

Who's to blame? Both sides point to the other. City Council says that only the city administration can allocate the funding, while Wilder has pinned the blame on council. Recently, city spokesman Linwood Norman collared City Council for not addressing the issue at a recent budget meeting.

City Councilman Marty Jewell, a Wilder ally, says the standoff is needlessly hurting some of the most city's poorest home-owners.

"Some of this stuff has gotten real personal. There have been cuts to get at the mayor, and tit for tat. It's got to stop," Jewell says. "The people suffer when we do this kind of stuff" — people like Jean Brooks, 80, who lives by herself on a fixed income on Hunt Avenue in the city's North Side. She was born in the 82-year-old house, which is assessed at $65,000. Last year she paid $77 with 90 percent tax relief. This year's bill was $689. Luckily a friend unexpectedly sent her a check to cover the bill, which she otherwise wouldn't have been able to pay.

A former assistant in the city manager's office at City Hall, Brooks has been fortunate in many regards. Aside from the occasional Tylenol, she has no medical bills or pillboxes to keep up with. No medical conditions or illnesses — yet.

"The insurance makes money off of me," she jokes. To pay the tax bill next year, she's already crunching her budget to see where she can squeeze out another $60 a month — assuming she isn't hit with a bigger real estate assessment.

Time is running out, though. Jean Heath, on West Grace Street, keeps the ashes of her fallen pets as a reminder. The memorial urns holding deceased cats Butterscotch and Stella, and Dufus the dog, sit atop the mantel above the fireplace. She has time, but she teases that her money woes could drive her to drink again.

"When I'm on my deathbed, I want a joint and some cheap wine," she says with a smirk, between drags of a cigarette. S

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