Tax break program for Utah seniors could disappear for lack of use

Tax break program for Utah seniors could disappear for lack of use
Courtesy Jerry Schmidt

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Daily Herald and the Standard Examiner.

SALT LAKE CITY — A four-decades-old property tax relief program that helps some of Utah’s most vulnerable seniors is now itself at risk of fading away due to sheer legislative neglect.

The Circuit Breaker program, established some time in the 1980s, targets low-income homeowners age 66 and up, giving those who qualify a trim on their annual property tax bill.

The size of that trim is based on a sliding scale of incomes adjusted annually by law. This portion of the poorly marketed Circuit Breaker program is administered by each of Utah’s 29 counties, with an application deadline of Sept. 1.

According to a Utah State Tax Commission report released in August, Salt Lake City led the way, giving 2,185 senior citizens a homeowners credit totaling almost $1.4 million. Weber County granted almost $606,000 in relief to 989 homeowners, Utah County issued just over $530,000 to 845 homeowners, and Davis County gave almost $488,000 to 856 homeowners who applied and qualified for the credit.

Circuit Breaker also provides a corresponding rebate for low-income renters who apply through the State Tax Commission by Dec. 31. If they qualify, they will receive a rebate.

State Tax Commission figures show Circuit Breaker’s income cap currently topping out at $38,369. A sliding scale provides homeowners at the bottom a maximum deduction of $1,186. Those at the top, with household incomes between $34,532 and $38,369, can receive a $188 reduction.

For financially vulnerable renters, those at the bottom of the scale can receive a rebate of $1,137, and those at the top $139.

Lifeline or redistribution of wealth?

The COVID-19 pandemic fueled the wave of rising home values in Utah, inflated by a flood of in-migration from other states. That spike in values led to corresponding increases in property tax bills, threatening low-income Utahns on fixed incomes with the loss of their housing.

But in recent years, Circuit Breaker income caps have not been adjusted accordingly. But it’s not for lack of effort on the part of lawmakers in touch with those most affected by these financial pressures.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Salt Lake City Democrat, sponsored House Bill 260 in 2023 in an attempt to expand income eligibility to $50,000 for homeowners and renters.

Briscoe’s measure sailed through the House with full support in a 68-0 vote. But it barely squeaked through the powerful Senate Revenue and Taxation committee in late February with four senators in favor and three against.

After that, the measure failed to come up for debate and a vote on the Senate floor.

Briscoe pointed to a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis index that showed a 52% increase in Utah residential property values between the second quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2022.

“In that same period of time, automatic increases for Social Security went up 5.9% and 8.7%,” Briscoe said of the widening disparity between revenue and expenses that seniors on fixed incomes are facing.

But committee chair Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, showed very little interest in perpetuating the Circuit Breaker program.

“The committee has preferred, in the past, moving toward property tax deferral and moving away from Circuit Breaker,” McCay told Briscoe. “Circuit Breaker creates a wealth transfer and the deferral creates a deferred payment that is then due at another time.”

But Briscoe suggested that both programs could amicably coexist, noting that 2023 legislation activates property tax deferral in all of Utah’s 29 counties.

“Maybe we should let both (programs) operate for a few years and see,” Briscoe said.

At that same bill hearing, Danny Harris — advocacy director for AARP Utah — expressed hearty support for both Circuit Breaker and property tax deferral.

“We are hearing more and more from our members who are struggling to keep the roof over their heads, and a lot of them because of property taxes,” Harris told McCay, adding that AARP-Utah believes “both programs are important to older Utahns and that they work well together.”

“I think that’s a great consideration … a good point,” McCay responded.

“There are many people who qualify for the Circuit Breaker, ironically, who don’t qualify for tax deferral,” Harris said during the February committee hearing.

Deferrals target seniors age 75 years old and up, and appear to cater to Utahns with more cash flow. Household income is capped at 200% above the Circuit Breaker caps, and homeowners cannot have liquid resources exceeding 20 times the amount of property tax levied the prior year.

Also, it’s important to note that interest and fees accrue on deferred taxes in the form of property liens that come due when the homes change hands.

Burt Harvey oversees property tax programs for the Utah County Auditor’s Office. He participated online during February’s committee hearing on Briscoe’s Circuit Breaker bill.

“I’m here to voice my support as someone who deals with these individuals every day … and sees the stress that seniors are going through,” Harvey said.

Harvey noted that along with increased home values and associated property taxes, seniors on fixed incomes also grapple with shrinking spending power.

“Inflation has reduced the effective dollars they have to spend,” Harvey said, “especially with the medical costs that folks at this age experience.”

Jerry Schmidt, a former caseworker with Salt Lake County’s Aging Services, helped many struggling renters tap the Circuit Breaker renters rebate.

Schmidt spoke in support of bolstering the program, noting that he didn’t think the deferral program would do anything for renters struggling to stay in their homes.

“If they don’t have a value for their apartment, maybe that wouldn’t affect them — and that is the area I worked in mainly,” Schmidt said.

One renter’s struggle

A 78-year-old Salt Lake County widow — who initially tapped the Circuit Breaker’s renters rebate five years ago, thanks to Schmidt’s assistance — recently shared her struggles to keep her head above water.

“Sophie” asked that her real name not be used due to scammers who might target her.

Interviewed by phone recently — about a week into her 29-day regimen of chemotherapy and radiation to battle a second bout of cancer — she acknowledged that “some days are good and some are bad.”

Sophie survives on $1,600 per month of Social Security. Just three years ago, she enjoyed discounted rent in a house she’d occupied for 16 years. But the real estate market compelled the homeowner to unload the property.

“They decided to sell because the market was going crazy. So I had to move,” Sophie said. “But at the time I lived there, I was able to put a little away because my rent was cheap.”

Those days are past. Now, Sophie pays about $900 per month to rent a mobile home. Add gas, lights, phone, groceries and doctor copayments on top of that, and there’s little or nothing left.

In addition to currently battling cancer, Sophie also needs to replace her hearing aids. She’s hoping that last year’s renters rebate of $630 — squirreled away for emergencies — will help cover her required copay for that vital piece of equipment.

When asked if she had any advice for Utah legislators, Sophie said: “Number one, they need to help renters. A lot of people don’t even know about (the rebate).”

In light of rising rents, Sophie stressed the urgency of that help.

“I don’t know how anybody can survive, because it takes maybe three incomes to pay rent … and it’s getting worse, not better.” Sophie said.

What the numbers say

Annual data tracking use of Circuit Breaker by both homeowners and renters shout out that the program is underutilized. And in large part, that’s because people don’t know about it.

Counties and the Utah Tax Commission have never had funds allocated to market and advertise the program, so it tends to fly under the radar. And for many, the program’s complexities make it difficult to navigate.

Data tracked by the State Tax Commission indicate that 9,007 homeowners claimed Circuit Breaker relief in 2021 and 9,607 in 2022.

For renters, only 2,748 tapped the rebate in 2021, and that number decreased to 2,639 in 2022.

A whopping 14 of Utah’s 29 counties had two or fewer renter refund participants in 2022 — with eight or those counties reporting zeros.

The more populous counties along the Wasatch Front carried the bulk of the numbers, with Salt Lake County leading the pack.

As of 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau projected Utah’s total population at 3,380,800, with 12% of that total 65 years or older — meaning that roughly 405,700 Utah residents fall into the age group that might qualify.

According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, residential property tax now makes up more than half of the revenues fueling local governments. And school districts consume more than half of that total property tax pie.

The institute recommended minimizing the regressive nature of property tax by ensuring that Circuit Breaker is “appropriately sized and easy for eligible taxpayers to access.”

In September, the Gardner Institute published a report describing the current state of Utah’s housing market. The pandemic dramatically drove up home sales prices, but those prices have modestly declined since 2022.

However, only 15% of Utah renters earn enough to transition into homeownership, the report said. And average rental rates in each of the four Wasatch Front counties ballooned more than 25%, with Weber County topping the chart at more than 30%.

These numbers are sobering — for people trying to buy their first homes or those seniors hoping to remain in their last homes.

In 2022, former Rep. Steve Waldrip sponsored H.B. 401 to also raise income caps on Circuit Breaker eligibility. His bill had full support of the House — as did Briscoe’s in 2023 — and even fared better in the Senate committee with Sen. Dan McCay being the lone no vote against it.

But as with Briscoe’s bill, Waldrip’s measure never made it to the Senate floor, and Waldrip retired after that session to focus on a social benefit investment fund that he co-founded, called the Rocky Mountain Homes Fund.

The fund aims to help teachers, public safety personnel, frontline health care workers and teachers who had gotten priced out of Utah’s housing market.

Waldrip described how it’s tailored to “people we once called middle class. They were the backbone and could buy homes, build equity and create generational wealth. They can no longer do that.”

What’s next?

While the ship has already sailed this year for homeowners to seek Circuit Breaker relief on their property tax bills — the annual deadline for that is Sept. 1 — the window still remains open for renters to seek a Circuit Breaker rebate. The deadline to apply for that is Dec. 31.

Schmidt, who retired from Salt Lake County’s Aging Services in 2021, has since channeled his passion for helping underdogs into making YouTube videos that explain the hard-to-navigate Circuit Breaker program. This one targets low-income renters:

The steps to tap the renters rebate are fairly simple:

1. Go to the Circuit Breaker renter rebate page on the the Utah Tax Commission’s website,

2. For direct help by phone or in person, you can call or visit one of their four offices in Ogden, Salt Lake City, Provo or Hurricane:

3. You can download an application form for the renters refund at Then you can mail or fax it to one of the four State Tax Commission offices.

4. Or you can fill out the renters rebate application form online and submit it electronically at using the Taxpayer Access Point.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Sandy Republican who successfully co-sponsored a Circuit Breaker bill with former Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Gene Davis in 2020 without raising income caps, said his constituents are “really concerned about their property taxes.”

“Circuit Breaker is a useful program. I think it’s helpful,” Spendlove recently said by phone. “But is there a way to do it in a simpler, more effective way? I would rather see it improved and expanded than rescinded.”

Schmidt hopes to see Circuit Breaker thrive.

“I’m interested in seeing this program expanded and for more people to know about it,” Schmidt said recently by phone. “It’s sad to see that so few numbers are dealing with the renter refund program.”

Who qualifies for rent assistance?

The applicant must be 66 years of age as of Dec. 31 of the year for which they are applying.

A widow or widower of any age may qualify.

The applicant must furnish their own financial support for the year and cannot be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return.

The applicant must have resided in the state of Utah for the entire calendar year for which they are applying.

An application must be completed and signed each year, using one of the following two methods:

1. Complete the online application using the Taxpayer Access Point. Note: Using this electronic method may significantly speed your refund.

2. Complete, sign and submit a current Form TC-90CB, Renter Refund Application.

The annual household income cannot exceed the amount specified by the Legislature. Note: This amount changes each year.

The applicant must include all rent that has been paid.

The applicant must apply in person at one of the State Tax Commission offices if they are a resident alien, qualify under 8.U.S.C 1641 and are in the U.S. lawfully. The applicant must provide proof of I-94 and/or Alien Registration Number.

Source: Utah State Tax Commission

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