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North Adams Adopts Senior, Veteran Property Tax Programs

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday authorized the establishment of two pilot programs that would allow veterans and seniors to work off part of their property tax bills. 
The council adopted the provisions of state laws for programs in which those age 60 or older can receive abates of up to $1,500 and veterans can receive abatements of up to $1,000 for their volunteer services. The roll-call votes were 8-1 on both orders.  
The city had considered the program in 2013 but it never made it to Finance Committee. 
Individuals can only participate in one of the programs at a time and are not eligible if they are already receiving some type of tax adjustment such as the Senior Circuit Breaker Program. In the case of the Veterans Tax Work-Off Program, the spouse of a veteran who has died or has a service-connected disability can apply.
The city has some leeway in setting up guidelines and income eligibility requirements for Senior Citizen Property Tax Work-Off program.
In response to questions, Mayor Thomas Bernard said, "the next step ... would be to develop the application and guidelines. What I can tell you is it varies by community."
Dalton, he said, sets a threshold of a gross household income of $25,000 for individual and $33,000 for a married couple. In Lanesborough, it's $50,350 and $57,500.
"We've gotten sample applications from a number of communities," the mayor said. "It's going to be fairly easy to create the application and set that limit."
Adams, Pittsfield and Williamstown have also adopted the program. 
Councilor Eric Buddington opposed the program, feeling that it would be more straightforward to pay seniors directly for any work provided. 
"Under this, they will not be allowed to make more than minimum wage," he said. "I feel as though the city has the means to give citizens money in exchange for work. ... I would much prefer the simplicity of hiring people to do city work than this sort of in-between, they're a sort of volunteer but we are compensating them at less than the legal minimum."
Councilor Jason LaForest agreed that people should be paid a fair wage but said, "Earning income at the appropriate level may offset the ability to obtain [other] benefits and may offset federal and state tax concerns."
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson noted that the city would run afoul of discrimination laws if it hired only people older than 60 and Councilor Benjamin Lamb added that "The fact that it is not a paycheck is the benefit." 
"I understand it's more complex than just writing a check ... but that complexity is what allows this program to function as it does," Lamb said.
Participants in either program would not be paid by check but rather see their volunteer hours as an abatement against their property taxes. The city would still have to deduct for unemployment, per state law, but not for any other federal or state requirements. 
The mayor was unable to answer what the tax impact would be at this point or how many people would participate. Lenox has 20 people participating in the senior program, he said, but Lanesborough saw its 19 drop to six after requiring income verification. Williamstown has two. 
"I wouldn't imagine it going higher than five people in the first year (including the veterans program)," he said. In surveying local councils on aging, the city found the response to the program was "uniformly favorable."
The councilors were generally approving but still wondered how this would affect the budget and who would most benefit. 
"I'm concerned how that affects other taxpayers in the community," LaForest said. "The one thing I hear from residents over and over again is they don't want their taxes to go up. When we spend money anywhere, taxes go up. ... are we going to limit this so it's not a burden on the rest of the retired taxpayers in the community?"
Councilor Marie T. Harpin said there are many senior citizens in the community who were volunteering who could benefit from this program, citing especially the Hill Side Restoration group that has been working to improve the city's oldest cemetery. What they have done "is way more than $1,500 ... they have contributed to the city and made the city look beautiful," she said.
Council President Keith Bona, however, questioned if they would be "politicizing volunteers." "Do we need this to get better volunteers?" he asked.
The mayor said the program would be tailored to specific needs within the city and not for general volunteering. Applicants would have to be qualified and show need. 
"These are the ones who need that help the most," he said. "They're at a point in their lives where they need that extra buffer."
Vetting would initially be done through the Veterans Office and Council on Aging and the participants would answer to supervisor in whichever department they were assigned. Both the Veterans Office and the library had indicated interest in the program.
"I'm willing to absolutely say yes to do a test program," said Councilor Rebbecca Cohen. "I think this would be great for the community."
LaForest said his main concern was that once approved, it would be out of the council's hands. Lamb, however, noted that it would come back through the budget process when councilors would have some limited control.
"Some of my peers have a hard time paying taxes ... one of their biggest fears is they are going to lose their home," Wilkinson said. "I wish the program were offered to a larger range of people but it's just a pilot program."
In other business: 
The Public Safety Committee's recommendation dealing with the shooting range was postponed. The committee had met on the matter Monday night. 
• The Finance Committee has set a meeting for Oct. 10 to discuss a stipend for the Retirement Board. The matter was postponed until the council meeting of Oct. 23.
• The council approved the appointments of Randall Kemp to the Commission on Disabilities, for a term to expire Dec. 1, 2021; of Suzanne Wick and Paul Senecal to the Mobile Home Rent Control Board, both for a terms to expire Sept. 25, 2023; and of Sarah Sutro to the Public Arts Commission to fill the unexpired term of Gail Sellers to expire on May 1, 2022.

Tags: property taxes,   senior citizens,   senior programs,   tax abatement,   veterans,   

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