Older & Wiser: New town-approved tax relief for seniors

Once again Harvard has conducted its annual town meeting and election, and once again serious issues affecting the town’s future have been decided. Warrant articles were debated and resolved, and millions of dollars were appropriated for myriad purposes. The number and enthusiasm of voters was quite high, requiring an overflow room for the first time. It was Harvard at its best, participating in this democratic process with courtesy and thoughtfulness.

Most of the excitement revolved around an article to build a new elementary school. Although a majority of voters supported the concept, there was concern that the cost of the new school would limit the town’s ability to make any other large capital expenditures. There also was concern that the cost of the construction would impose a heavy tax burden on residents, especially elders on fixed incomes. This difference in perspective and self-interest could have played out in a negative way.

Fortunately, there was another article in the warrant that mitigates some of this increased tax liability. Article 39 requires that the town file a home-rule petition with the Legislature to implement a means-tested senior citizens property tax exemption. How would it work?

A property tax exemption applies to elders 65 and above who meet specific criteria.

A cap on the exemption shall amount to no more than 10 percent of total household income and shall not reduce taxes to more than 50 percent of taxes due.

Income caps for the exemption are $57,000 for a single filer, $71,000 for a single head of household, and $86,000 for elders filing jointly.

The applicants must have lived in Harvard for 10 consecutive years and have no real property exceeding $720,000.

The warrant article spells out some of the town’s obligations under this provision.

The initial total amount of the exemptions granted shall be capped at .5 percent of the previous year’s tax levy. After the first year, the cap will be set by the Select Board between .5 and 1 percent.

The determination of exemption requests will be carried out by the Harvard Elderly and Disabled Taxation Aid Committee. The application will be denied if the committee determines that the applicant has excessive assets.

The final steps in the process will be approval of the home-rule petition by the state Legislature and approval of the act by a majority at Town Election. After three years the act will expire, unless reaffirmed by a majority vote at a town election.

Town Meeting voters also approved a measure increasing the income limit for the town’s senior tax deferral program, allowing seniors with incomes at or below $57,000 to defer tax payments at a 2 percent interest rate. Combined with the tax exemption program, this measure should mitigate some seniors’ tax burden. However, the exemption provision is only temporary unless the town votes to support it after three years.

The plight of low-income elders in Harvard is real. Seniors patronize the food pantry and eat lunch at the Council on Aging to economize. Seniors struggle to meet prescription drug costs and other expenses of daily living. Easing the property tax burden will help them but will not cure the problems they face. Harvard came together to build a new school for its children. Hopefully it will come together once more to sustain tax relief for its seniors whenever these measures come to a vote.

  Deb Thomson is a retired elder-law attorney and a member of the board of the Council on Aging.

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