Fairfield committee looking at senior tax relief changes
FAIRFIELD — The committee reviewing the town’s tax relief programs is taking a measured approach to changes, dealing first with some relatively easy adjustments.
Chairman Jill Vergara, D-7, said the initial changes being proposed to the Representative Town Meeting could improve program administration, and require less research and analysis. “We decided to separate out the sort of ‘easier’ and less complicated issues from the issues that required more analysis,” she said.
There are three forms of senior tax relief administered by the town: a tax credit program, a tax freeze program, and a tax deferral program. The state has a program as well — the Circuit Breaker program — but has stopped funding it.
“All of our proposed changes derive from (Assessor) Ross Murray’s recommendations to the prior committee,” Vergara said. Those changes, she said, were never discussed by last year’s committee.
One of the changes is to occupancy requirements, which Vergara said was one of Murray’s requests. The change would require a homeowner to reside at their Fairfield address for 183 days — six months and a day, consistent with state and federal guidelines. Currently, a 265-day residency is required.
“This was an issue that came up several times last session,” Vergara said. She said in looking at 16 other towns, 13 have the 183-day requirement, two have no occupancy requirement, and one requires a 280-day residency.
Another change would be to remove the delinquency disqualification completely. These changes will be on the Representative Town Meeting agenda for April, Vergara said.
The second phase of changes will look at possibly increasing income eligibility levels, increasing the tax credits allocated for each income bracket, adding income brackets, raising the Qualifying Total Asset Values, replacing the QTAV with assessment limits, eliminating the freeze program, enhancing the deferral program, or instituting a homestead credit or freeze for all of the town’s seniors.
Vergara said holding those changes over for more analysis makes more sense at this time “I do not think it is advisable to make changes that can impact the town’s budget in the middle of the budget season,” she said. And with the state pushing the $450,000 in funding for its Circuit Breaker program to the town, Vergara said she thinks its “irresponsible to raise levels without knowing what kind of economic impact such changes will have the program funding needs.”
She said there are various revisions that can be made to improve the current ordinance, and some of those revisions compete with each other. “We need to figure out what is the most effective change to make to both help seniors in town and incentivize seniors to stay in town,” Vergara said. “These are complex changes that require much discussion and information, and certainly cannot be pushed through the RTM in under two months.”
Vergara said there is “definitely” consensus on the committee to make broader changes, “and we will submit more substantive changes to the RTM within the next year.”
Deputy Minority Leader Michael Herley, R-10, a member of the committee, said his party is “fully committed” to expanding the tax relief program. He said they support increases to qualifying income brackets beyond the current upper boundary of $70,000, increasing the tax credit by income bracket, increasing the cap and maximizing the size of the tax relief, and raising the upper threshold for Qualifying Total Asset Value.
”We support increases to all four of these categories today, and quite frankly we look forward to the day when all seniors that reside in Fairfield get some level of tax relief, with those at the lowest levels of the income distribution getting the greatest monetary relief,” Herley said.
Because the application process for this year has already begun, Herley acknowledged that it's not possible to make those types of changes for this year. But, he said, it is something they will be “aggressively advocating for.”
”As it stands now, a slightly tweaked ordinance is under review by the L&A Committee, and, if all goes well it should make its way to the full RTM for the April meeting,” Herley said. He said the want to be able to debate the ordinance on the floor of the RTM next month and put forward any additional amendments they may have.
Herley was critical of suggestions that additional changes will need more analysis, and questioned whether Democrats would debate the ordinance before the budget is finalized “or will their members on the L&A Committee engage in dilatory actions to tie it up in committee.”
While Democrats now hold the majority on the RTM, that was not the case during last year’s incarnation of the tax relief committee. In September of 2017, Vergara said the L&A committee rejected a proposal to raise income levels of $6,500, and the asset cap by $32,500, and tax relief changes never came out of committee for a floor vote. Herley was the chairman of the L&A Committee at the time.