Tax Relief

Op-Ed: Senior, Disabled Tax Reduction Modifications Overdue, Says RTM Rep

On Monday March 22nd, Fairfields RTM is due to vote on changes to the city’s tax break ordinance for elderly and disabled homeowners. Changes have been considered for over two years and are overdue. In November 2018, the RTM’s bipartisan Tax Relief Subcommittee proposed changes to address several shortcomings identified by the city’s tax officer, high-level stakeholders, seniors, and two previous RTM subcommittees. Our goal was to increase participation, simplify programs to simplify administration and the application process, reduce inequalities due to the asset limit, and increase utility.

One of the main problems examined was the degree of wear and tear on the program: within eight years, participation in the program had decreased by almost 20 percent, which means that we helped significantly fewer seniors in 2018 (1,343) than we were in 2010 ( 1,656). Today we have only 1,306 participants in our relief programs, which is fewer than the number of seniors the city helped in 1982. The Finance Committee’s recommendation, which is currently under consideration, is to increase the benefit calculations for loan programs that are not upgraded. Participation in the program in no way increases benefits for those already eligible for the programs in the lowest income brackets. The Finance Committee’s recommendation ignores any other shortcomings.

I will be voting in favor of the CFO’s recommended loan program changes, not because I believe the CFO has made the best, or most efficient, or most necessary changes, but because it is simply time to do something. Older and disabled taxpayers have waited far too long for better relief. And the city’s inactivity in this area has undoubtedly driven seniors from the city who can no longer afford to live here, affecting the city’s long-term sustainability.

In my view, the revisions currently under consideration are not an extension of the relief in a historical context. The revisions will certainly benefit some of the lower-income seniors in the city, but they will not expand participation. It is for this reason that I question any characterization of these changes as an “extension” of the tax breaks for the elderly and the disabled. While the budget shows a 15 percent increase in the amount earmarked for tax breaks for the elderly and the disabled and brings the total tax loss to $ 4.2 million (up from $ 3.7 million last year), that allotment merely represents the tax break back to levels just four years ago, and not up to the level budgeted seven years ago (in fiscal 2014 the city earmarked $ 4.6 million in tax breaks for the elderly and the disabled).

My position was and is that it is in the best interests of the city to reduce the tax burden for as many seniors as possible. Losing seniors costs city money in the long run: when seniors sell their homes, they are likely selling to families with young children that the city has to pay for their education. Investing in a utility program that helps retain seniors is a wise investment that will ultimately save the city money. In my extensive comparative studies of other cities, I have found that we are one of the few cities in this region where the proportion of senior citizens in our population has declined. The two cities – Newtown and Redding – that devoted the highest percentage of their budget to senior tax breaks, both saw the greatest growth in their senior population (each of these cities has nearly doubled its senior population since 2000). The cities of Easton, Redding, Ridgefield and Wilton allow senior citizens in their higher-income cities to participate in their tax break programs than Fairfield. The RTM’s Tax Relief Subcommittee wanted to unburden seniors with incomes up to $ 90,000, which was competitive with the aid programs of several other cities (as well as New York State’s real estate relief program for seniors with incomes up to $ 90,550) would be increased participation.

The decline in enrollment needs to be addressed. We need to help more seniors. And we need to make the programs fairer and easier to manage (so that we don’t need large staff to process these applications and oversee overly complex programs). We need to make the changes to the performance calculations currently under consideration, but we also need to commit to doing more work.

Jill Vergara

Fairfield Representative Town Meeting

Majority Leader Pro Tempore

Representative, District 7

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