Friday, February 6, 2009
Are you facing economic distress?
Panel urges early action, lists homeowner options
As the economy continues to falter, more and more Carlisle residents are facing financial difficulty. On January 26, the Carlisle Housing Authority presented a speaker and panel discussion designed to help residents find the resources they need for financial support.
Five steps for debt management
Julie Bernick, of Money Management International, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service, presented five steps to take when one is faced with a credit crisis.
The first step in addressing a credit problem is to assess your financial situation. What is your income, what are your expenses, including fixed, variable and out-of-pocket?
Step two is to analyze all available resources. Do you have a rainy day fund? Can you sell anything for cash? Can you get a part-time job? Be sure to ask for help. There are many programs offering free debt counseling services. One suggestion from the audience was to periodically ask your utility companies if you are on the best plan for your usage. Very often this simple question can result in lower utility rates.
Step three is to set priorities. Mortgages, tax liabilities and other essential bills must be the top priority.
Step four is to create a financial plan. How can you cut your costs? How can you repay your debt? Do you need both a house phone and a cell phone? Do you need both cable and internet access? Cut coupons. Every bit of saving helps. Call your lenders and ask for a lower rate or ask them to restructure the payment plan.
The final step is to contact and communicate with your creditors. You want to do this before they contact you. Explain in writing your financial situation and your plan for re-payment.
Where to go for help
People who are experiencing financial difficulties often do not know where to get help. A panel of representatives from four town departments presented different options available to residents in need of financial assistance. Carlisle Administrative Coordinator Elizabeth Barnett started the discussion saying, “If you are in a difficult financial situation, it is not your fault. Please ask for help and make use of the assistance that is available.”
Barnett discussed what to do when foreclosure is looming. She emphasized how important it is to get help before foreclosure becomes a reality. She mentioned two organizations offering free counseling – the Home Preservation Coalition of Merrimac Valley and Metrowest Legal Services. (See table, below for contact information.) Also, the Coalition for Better Acre provides free housing counseling. They will help people prepare a strategy for bill payments as well as contact lenders and negotiate payment plans.
Barnett also spoke about the new affordable accessory apartment program in Carlisle. An accessory apartment can provide an extra source of income. An accessory apartment that is classified as affordable housing can potentially benefit both the town and the owner, because owners may qualify for a subsidy while participating in the program, and the apartment counts towards the town’s mandated target of 10% affordable housing. She highlighted the fact that seniors can designate the main house as affordable and live in the accessory apartment.
Town Assessor Melissa Stamp highlighted four ways to get assistance with reducing tax bills. One option is the exemption from the Community Preservation Act real estate tax surcharge. The CPA exemption is available to all residents who meet the income requirements, although the guidelines are less stringent for seniors. Even though the actual savings is small, Stamp encourages all seniors to apply for the exemption.
Veterans of any age can save up to $750 on their tax bill if they meet the income guidelines. The state offers a real estate tax exemption of $437.50 to the blind. Under the Senior Exemption Program, seniors can save up to $2,000 on their tax bill if they meet the income and asset requirements.
Finally, residents can apply for a tax deferral for temporary hardship. However, the deferral does include interest and ultimately the bill must be paid.
Residents who are interested in learning more about tax exemptions and deferrals should call Stamp at 1-978-369-0392. The deadline for applications is March 31.
Angela Smith, the Council on Aging Outreach Coordinator, spoke highly about the Senior Tax Relief Program administered through her office. Residents who are 60 or older can volunteer 87.5 hours in one of many areas throughout the town offices in exchange for a $700 tax credit. Every year all 16 slots are filled. Applications should be in by June.
Smith presented different fuel and food assistance programs available not just to seniors but all residents experiencing financial difficulty.
Food assistance is available through the Food Stamp Program as well as local food pantries. Fuel assistance also comes from many sources including Mass Energy, Citizen’s Energy Corporation and a new fuel assistance fund set up by Carlisle’s Selectmen designed to help Carlisle residents who are having temporary financial difficulties. The Salvation Army is another resource for people who need help with food, fuel, prescriptions and disaster relief.
The Carlisle Public School and Concord-Carlisle High School offer free and reduced price lunch for students whose families meet the income guidelines. Information for the program can be found at www.carlisle.k12.ma.us/general/freereduced.pdf or call the Carlisle School business office at 1-978-369-6239. For information on the CCHS program please call the Food Service Director at 1-978-369-6239.
Smith stressed that Carlisle residents should ask for help. Her office will direct people to the right organization and help with the sometimes complicated paperwork.
Finally, although not officially on the panel, Rev. Diane Miller, the minister for the First Religious Society (FRS), spoke to the audience about Carlisle’s newly established Neighbor Fund. Thanks to a generous gift from two local families, the three churches in town, St. Irene, FRS, and the Congregational Church have combined efforts to set up a fund to help residents in need.
The funds are available to any Carlisle resident on an emergency basis after they have tried to access other assistance programs. To apply for the fund or to make a donation, contact any of the three churches.
The message of the evening was that help is available; you just have to know where to look. No matter what, do not wait until your financial situation becomes dire before seeking assistance. ∆
© 2009 The