Seniors balk at local tax increases
Seniors in Danbury-area towns are urging officials to consider how potential tax hikes next year would affect them, arguing that current tax relief policies for seniors are not enough to help those living on a fixed income.
The tax burden on seniors was brought up during recent budget hearings in at least four towns — Ridgefield, Brookfield, New Milford and Redding. Seniors in some towns asked officials to keep tax increases down to lessen their impact on the elderly, but many in Ridgefield and Redding specifically asked for help with their tax bills.
In Ridgefield, a group of about 65 seniors calling themselves the OWLS, or the Older Wiser Lively Set, proposed three changes in the town’s tax relief plan to give elderly taxpayers more help.
Elderly Tax Relief Programs*
*For residents 65 and older, with restrictions on amount of time lived in town; numbers based on most recent data
OWLS President John Fisher said the changes would bring the tax benefits more in line with the cost of living in town.
“Social Security hasn’t gone up very much in a long time, so what we in the senior community are faced with is an ever-increasing cost of living,” Fisher said. “Our incomes are not at all keeping up with that. Over time, the gap becomes greater.”
Under state statute, towns can set up their own tax relief plans for elderly and disabled residents, who are also eligible to apply for state relief programs.
Ridgefield’s program gives qualifying seniors a $1,048 tax benefit per household and offers up to 100 percent deferral of taxes for those making $55,000 or less. The OWLS plan would raise the per-household benefit to $1,200, freeze taxes for those over 75 and raise the maximum for deferral to $65,000.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the town is reviewing how much the changes would cost, but the proposal came too late to be made part of next year’s budget, which will head to voters in May. He added that most town officials believe next year’s budget is too tight to implement the ideas immediately.
Officials will explore whether any of the changes are possible for the 2019-20 budget, he said. “There wasn’t enough time to run those numbers this year,” Marconi said. “(But)the Board of Finance suggested the Board of Selectmen take into consideration a review of the current senior tax credit program and see if we can figure it out.”
The tax relief program is also under review in Bethel, where officials created an Elderly Tax Abatement Commission in 2016 to review the benefits. The town now reduces qualifying residents’ tax bills by 10 to 75 percent based on income levels. Tax Collector Ann Scacco said the commission has not yet decided whether to change Bethel’s plan. She added that a more recent concern has become a lack of funding for the state program.
This year’s state budget eliminated the requirement that the state reimburse towns for seniors who participate in Connecticut’s elderly relief program. Scacco said this could affect what Bethel is able to offer, since it will now have to pick up the state cost in addition to its own plan.
Seniors across the area were quick to recognize the role state finances have played in increasing the tax burden.
Jeff McBreairty, a senior in New Milford, said the town struggled to craft next year’s budget because it will receive at least $3 million less in state funding.
The proposed town and school budget will increase spending by just $702,000 over this year and will use $1.1 million of the town’s undesignated fund to keep taxes down. But because of the lack of state funding, the tax rate will still go up 3.87 percent.
“That’s 3.87 percent I don’t have,” McBreairty said. “It’s going to get to the point where I won’t be able to live in this town anymore, and that’s a shame. I’ve been living here for 54 years.”
McBreairty said he receives disability and veteran’s benefits, but still struggles to pay his taxes. He might look into advocating for more senior benefits should taxes continue to go up, McBreairty said.
Another senior, Carmine Rositano, of Brookfield, said he isn’t too hopeful that elderly tax relief plans will be improved at either the town or state level because both are dealing with strained finances. Rositano said he himself doesn’t qualify for the town’s tax relief program, but thinks it doesn’t do much for those that do.
He instead has pressed town officials to decrease spending so seniors aren’t forced to move. Should the 2018-19 proposal to raise taxes by 5.64 percent be approved, he said, taxes in Brookfield will have gone up 13 percent over the last three years.
Social Security has increased by only 2.5 percent in the same time period, Rositano said. He added that he will need to dip into his savings to pay his taxes next year, as he did this year, should the 5.64 percent increase be approved. “It is rather difficult for the senior citizens to keep funding Brookfield at the pace that it is going,” Rositano said. “A lot of the increase has to do with reduced funding (from the state). The state is in a fiscal bind, the towns are in a fiscal bind, and they’re passing it all on to their citizens.”