Selectmen continue senior tax credit

FI-greenwich-town-sealContinuation of a tax credit for Greenwich’s seniors has the endorsement of the Board of Selectmen, but there are two big hurdles remaining for it to clear before June.

At its Feb. 6 meeting, the Board of Selectmen approved extending an ordinance that allows for an abatement to be placed on property taxes owed to the town from eligible senior citizens. Under the ordinance, which was first enacted in 2000, to be eligible, someone must be 65 years old or older, or have a surviving spouse who is 60 or older, have been a Greenwich taxpayer for at least one year, have lived in town for at least 183 days a year, not have a total yearly income more than $63,000, and not have property worth more than a predetermined level from the town’s assessor’s office.

The level of how much tax relief is granted to an applicant for the program depends on income and the worth of the person’s property, and this has been considered a boon for seniors living in town. First Selectman Peter Tesei, before the vote, said he believed the program has been a success.

“Our objective is to assist our senior population living on a fixed income,” Mr. Tesei said. “It’s far more beneficial from a society’s point of view to have them age in place in their homes versus being forced to be institutionalized where oftentimes the costs are greater. People are living longer, thanks to the advances in medicine. The quality of life has greatly improved to go along with that longevity. … There is an imperative to act on this. We don’t want to lose this benefit for our citizens who are depending upon it.”

Lori Jackson, chairman of the town’s Commission on Aging, agreed that the program had helped town seniors.

“This keeps seniors in their homes and provides a huge benefit as the number of seniors grows and long-term care facilities can only provide a limited number of beds,” Ms. Jackson said before talking about how relief from the program had allowed a woman living in Riverside on a limited income to remain in the home she had raised her family in until the day she died. “This can make a tremendous impact when you’re living on a limited income. It’s expensive to live in our community and pay for food, electricity and medications. It is the right thing for this town to support seniors so they can remain in their homes.”

Mr. Tesei noted that the program, while affecting a very small percentage of the population, was an important one because it allowed seniors to remain in their homes longer and continue to be active members of the Greenwich community with only a slight impact on the town budget. A cap is in place within the ordinance preventing the town from giving out too much in tax relief, but that number has never been close to being hit.

Town Assessor Lauren Elliott said there were typically 650 to 700 participants in the program every year. It’s her job to evaluate how much tax relief each participant in the program receives, which generally comes in the range of between $2,235 and $588. Lori Contadino, director of the Commission on Aging, said this insures that the most needy seniors get the most relief. The cap is not on the number of people who may participate in it but rather on how much is given out, necessitating the yearly evaluation.

The selectmen’s action was necessary because of a sunset clause placed into the ordinance by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) that would end the program unless it was re-approved by the town. The ordinance will go before the BET at its Feb. 18 meeting and then will require a final approval from the Representative Town Meeting, and the clock is ticking on this. The BET meeting takes place after the close of the RTM’s call for its March meeting and the May RTM meeting is entirely focused on voting on the municipal budget. That leaves April as the only time it can be discussed and competed in time.

In order for Ms. Elliott and her staff to properly apply the relief, this has to be settled by June, since the ordinance expires automatically on June 30 and applications have to be evaluated. So if no action is taken before then, it would impact the entire program.

The selectmen’s vote on the ordinance was not unanimous, but not because of any lack of support for the program. Mr. Tesei and Selectman David Theis voted for the ordinance’s language, but Selectman Drew Marzullo did not because he didn’t want the approved version to keep the sunset clause. Initially the board seemed inclined to remove it, especially after Ms. Jackson urged they do so, saying it was the job of the commission and the selectmen to “advocate for seniors, not scramble around every three to five years to resolve this when the sunset is about to cancel out our efforts.”

“There should be stability for our seniors, not an ongoing debate as to whether a program like this is in the best interests of our town,” Ms. Jackson said. “Seniors should always be the concern for our town.”

Mr. Marzullo agreed, but Town Administrator John Crary expressed concerns that making the change could gum up the works. He said he was worried the BET might take longer to approve new language in the ordinance than it would for a resubmission of an ordinance it had already approved and that could delay it going to the RTM and potentially put the matter at risk of not being settled by the time the new fiscal year began on July 1.

Mr. Crary said that from conversations he had with BET members he believed they wanted to keep the sunset clause in place and if the selectmen removed it, the BET might put it back in, potentially necessitating having to send it back to the selectmen to approve again or having two different versions of the ordinance come before the RTM. Both Mr. Crary and Assistant Town Attorney Eugene McLaughlin advocated for keeping the language as is for the smoothest approval process, but Mr. Marzullo said it was unnecessary to keep it.

“I don’t think you need a sunset clause for us to have a discussion as frequently as we want it to talk about how this program is doing and if any changes need to be made,” Mr. Marzullo said.

But his colleagues said they didn’t want to complicate the matter and retained the clause, with Mr. Marzullo voting against the ordinance as a protest against that.

“I don’t necessarily agree with this sunset, but at the same time, from a practical point of view, I don’t want to jeopardize the whole thing because of that,” Mr. Tesei said.

“It’s really a necessary evil,” Mr. Theis added.

Ms. Jackson repeated the commission’s objection to the clause, but said no one wanted to do anything to put the whole program at risk. She said that over the course of the next few years the commission would work with the BET to make sure that when it does come up again there won’t be a sunset clause.

“We want the ordinance to go forward, and if it goes forward for five years and then sunsets again, that’s not what we want, but I will take it,” Ms. Jackson said. “I don’t want to endanger this ordinance as it goes ping-ponging back and forth between bodies.”

The new sunset clause in the ordinance places the next expiration at June 30, 2019.

 

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