Tax breaks for seniors: Selectmen see issues

Tax breaks for senior citizens may long have seemed a political safe space, but Ridgefield’s Board of Selectmen saw some complications when discussing ways to ease taxes on older people — a request from the OWLS senior citizens group.

“What we’re faced with as seniors is our cost of living going up 2% to 3% every year, but our income is flat,” OWLS president Dr. John Fisher said.

“This is not easy,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

“The bottom line: We’re trying to balance the budget,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

“I’m a senior — I’m going to be 72. I’m on a fixed income,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners. “But we’re in a better position than a lot of young families,” she said. “Our generation had stable employment, pension benefits, Social Security.”

Any real tax benefit for seniors would mean other taxpayers would have to pay more.

Manners and Selectman Steve Zemo thought means-tested tax breaks made more sense than those based simply on age.

First Selectman Rudy felt the board should consider the request.

“When the schools need money, we agree,” he said. “Seniors are saying they’d like to have a little bit, too.”

The OWLS, a decades-old senior citizens group that currently has about 60 senior members, had recommended expansion of two existing tax benefits available to seniors, and the addition of a third.

“Over the years seniors have paid a great deal in taxes and have contributed to the Ridgefield community in many ways,” Fisher said in a written rationale for the proposal. “It’s now time for our seniors to receive some additional help.”

The new tax benefit suggested by the OWLS would be to freeze the town taxes a property owner pays when the taxpayer reaches age 75, so the annual tax bill would remain at that amount year after year as long as the person remained in town.

Manners didn’t like the idea of adding another tax break that isn’t means-tested.

“Freeze my taxes because I’ve reached a certain age?” she said. “Excuse me, that’s preposterous.”

There are two existing town programs to benefit the elderly, which the OWLS proposed expanding.

All Ridgefield taxpayers 65 or older are entitled to deduct up to $1,048 from their annual town tax bill. According to assessor Al Garzi, there are 1,675 households receiving a total of $1,739,079 under this program.

The OWLS proposed that the amount of this annual tax break be raised from the current $1,048 to $1,200 per year. This increase would cost the town’s other taxpayers about $255,000 a year, Garzi calculated.

If the increase were from $1,048 to $1,100, the annual cost would be be about $87,000, Garzi said.

The town also offers a tax deferral program that allows seniors with incomes below $55,000 to put off paying their taxes year after year until the property is sold — when they move, or by their estate.

The tax deferral program currently is used by 47 households, according to Garzi, and there is $2,107,000 in deferred payments outstanding — although the town will eventually be paid this money.

The OWLS had asked that the income ceiling to qualify for the program be changed, so that people with incomes up to $65,000 a year — rather than the current $55,000 — would be eligible to defer paying town taxes.

Some selectmen liked the idea of means-tested tax breaks available only to those with clear need — like the deferment program available to seniors citizens with incomes of $55,000 a year or less. They thought the board might explore expanding that kind of need-based program.

“What’s wrong with tinkering with the deferment?” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

“It makes sense,” Manners said. “I totally support helping people who need help.”

Fisher was less enthusiastic.

“I think, Mr. Zemo and Ms. Manners, you’re talking about the deferred payment program,” he said. “My generation, we were brought up with the idea of paying the bills on time — that’s the mentality we have,” he said.

“We’re always looking at our children and grandchildren,” he added. “If we defer things, there’s less to leave to leave to them.”

Marconi sought to clarify the deferment program.

“I want people to understand, you don’t need to defer 100%. They can defer 5%, 10%,” he said. “If you come down with an illness and the medication costs you $500 a month, you can defer that.”

Kozlark favored more study.

“I think we should look at the dollars and quantify this,” she said. “Anecdotal evidence is not going to help. We need need to look at the meat.”

Since tax benefits for seniors would mean more of a burden for other taxpayers to carry, Kozlark added that changes to federal tax law were among the factors that would have to be considered.

“The federal tax plan, that’s going to have a huge effect,” she said.

Marconi said he’d look further into senior tax break possibilities.

“I’ll sit with Al and go over it,” Marconi said.

“I don’t want to just cut revenue,” Selectman Bob Hebert said. “I do want to support seniors.

I’d support Rudy,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to take a deep dive into it.”

“That would be good,” Fisher said. “The longer we live, the more taxes we pay, and the more we contribute to our communities.”