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Paycheck to Paycheck: Keeping the tax man at bay

Rising property taxes and insurance on her little St. Petersburg home means a woman has to work a second job to keep it.

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT
Published June 4, 2007


"Oh there's the little buggies, " says Kitt Burt, 47, as she lifts a blood-caked pillow from the carpet of a small efficiency apartment. Underneath is a pool of maggots squirming on the spot where a dead man last laid his head.

Burt is cleaning the scene as a second job to help pay the rising taxes on her home. A true death-and-taxes moment.

She's covered head to foot in a blue biohazard suit she calls her "clown costume, " complete with bright yellow boots, blue latex gloves and a respirator. Working in it feels like being rolled in Saran wrap under Florida's summer sun. Within a few minutes it fills with sticky, trapped humidity. In it, she's spent hours cleaning everything from rat feces to human decomposition to meth labs. The work is sporadic, but it pays $35 an hour. The extra money is just enough to pay the ever-increasing taxes and insurance on the 860-square-foot St. Petersburg home she shares with her retired husband.

"When we bought the house it was contingent on me making enough to pay the bills and note with the money I make as a medical transcriber. It's just an itty-bitty house. Our payments started out at $630 six years ago, now it's about $1, 020."

Burt's husband owns his boyhood home, built by hand in Michigan by his parents in the 1920s. They use it as a vacation home, but decided to claim it as their primary residence to be sure it will always stay in the family. A homestead exemption, and the Save Our Homes cap, can only apply to one primary residence, so the taxes on the St. Petersburg home continually rise.

"I could homestead it if I said my husband and I are separated, but I can't lie to them. Besides, I'm not a good enough liar. I laugh too much, " Burt explains. "But the taxes and insurance are just killing us."

She sits on her knees and uses a drywall knife to cut a square of carpet around the blood stain and the maggots. It is rolled up and put in a red biohazard bag. As it drops, Burt shakes her fingers in a gesture that reads "eeeewww, " but doesn't say a word. She pauses to look at the spot, takes a breath and wipes sweat from her brow with her wrist.

She doesn't want to know any details about the person, his life or how he died.

"I don't want to personalize it. It just makes the work easier that way. Particularly in a job where we have to throw everything out; photographs, albums, and things people have kept their whole life. Its very, very hard to do that on a personal level."

She started the job last January, after months of not having enough money in her checking account to pay the utilities and the mortgage.

"In October, November last year I was depressed beyond belief. I'm not a crying person and I was just bawling. I thought 'Let's just sell this place and get out of here', but you can't even sell the place. ... I've never felt more frustrated in my life."

For now, as long as the biohazard business is steady, the tax man will be sure to get his due.

About this feature

Seventy percent of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

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