Nearly three dozen local seniors turned out Wednesday evening to learn about the details and ask questions on the proposed updates to a senior tax relief initiative currently being tapped by more than 2,000 homeowners. Several updates to the current program and its related ordinance will be the subject of a planned public hearing on May 7 in the Newtown Municipal Center legislative chambers at 7 pm.
The information forum April 16 was the latest in a series of meetings that have been going on across the community for months, as elected officials have responded to private homes and age-restricted communities to discuss and learn more about the concerns and challenges local seniors are facing.
Speaking to The Newtown Bee before the meeting, Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze said that during the most recent gatherings, response to the tax relief program and its proposed updates have been well received.
“The feedback and input we’re getting has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mr Kortze said. “These meetings are an opportunity to give seniors a voice, and to let them be heard.”
The finance board chairman said what started as emotionally charged meetings focusing on the latest municipal revaluation have morphed into sessions focusing on the resulting tax increases for homeowners in age-restricted communities.
These informal meetings have been led by Mr Kortze, who has previously been joined by his Vice Chair Joe Kearney, Legislative Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, and Board of Education Secretary Kathryn Hamilton. Council ordinance Committee Chair Ryan Knapp and Ms Hamilton were on hand for the April 16 gathering.
Mr Kortze said all the officials who have attended the meetings, whether large or small, have come away much more informed about senior needs, and are grateful to have received such constructive and direct feedback to help inform their decisions.
For nearly an hour Wednesday, Mr Kortze, Mr Knapp, and Ms Hamilton keyed in on the proposed tax relief program changes going to hearing May 7. Mr Kortze said the major changes to the ordinance include:
*A $150,000 increase to the fund from which relief is allocated — increasing the pool from $1.5 million to $1.65 million
*Creating a fourth qualifying income tier accommodating applicants whose household income falls between $65,000 and $70,000, with a maximum benefit cap of $800 per qualifying household.
*Prorating the benefit in the new top tier if the number of applicants exceeds the maximum $800 benefit amount available to each applicant.
*Rolling down any surplus from the $150,000 allocation for top tier applicants to increase the benefit pool for lower-income qualifiers.
*Initiating an asset test for those with assets exceeding $650,000 including their home, along with requiring a corresponding affidavit (this element would not take effect until the 2015 benefit application period).
During the April 16 meeting, a show of hands indicated about two-thirds of the attendees found the added asset test to be troublesome. Several seniors attending, including Richard O’Mara, pointed out that the added asset test might disqualify seniors already receiving tax relief under the current income verification criteria.
“You want to deprive some people of help who pass the income test, but won’t pass the asset test,” Mr O’Mara said.
Claire Theune said she believes adding an asset test to the current program will discourage seniors from either moving to Newtown or remaining here.
“It will chase people away,” Ms Theune said. “People don’t want to show their net worth.”
In researching how to go about initiating new qualifiers that would assure benefits accrue to those most in need, Mr Ryan said Tax Collector Carol Mahoney suggested the existing $1.5 million is appropriate for the current applicant pool.
He said otherwise, the council’s ordinance committee might as well “pull number out of the air,” because officials don’t have any data about how many taxpayers would qualify and apply for benefits in the newly proposed top tier.
The ordinance chairman said, however, that after a year or two, officials will have the necessary data to determine if the program is working at peak performance, or if other adjustments might be warranted.
Mr Kortze reiterated several times that the input being provided at the senior meetings is important. And Mr Ryan reminded those at the Wednesday forum that the council will not begin deliberating on the proposed changes until after the May 7 hearing, and encouraged anyone with questions or issues to attend and make their concerns known, adding, “The changes are still up for debate.”