Dramatic changes to Fairfield's tax-relief programs for senior citizens are being considered by the Representative Town Meeting, but some members worry the costs could be too great.

The RTM discussed the changes, but did not vote, at Monday's meeting.

The most significant change would be to the under utilized tax-deferral program. Currently, eligible homeowners who enroll in the program can defer annual increases in their property taxes until either the house is sold or the owner dies and the town recoups its money when the estate is probated. A lien is placed on a home in the program, and interest accumulates on the amount deferred. Right now, 16 homeowners take advantage of the tax-deferral option.

Under the new proposal, however, eligible homeowners could defer up to 50 percent of the gross property tax levy, a figure that some fear could boost the program's popularity and prove too costly.

RTM member Ed Bateson said while he is all for helping seniors, other taxpayers will have to make up for the lost tax revenue. "I want to support it," he said. "I've really got to think about it."

Thomas McCarthy, who chaired the RTM subcommittee that recommended the changes, estimated that the $3.4 million in reduced revenue that results from the senior tax-relief programs could jump to about $5 million, which First Selectman Mike Tetreau said means about a three-quarter of 1 percent tax increase. "We don't want to make it too generous as to compromise the tax-relief program," he said.

The committee, however, is also considering a cap on how much relief can be allocated through the tax-deferral program.

For all of the town's senior tax-relief programs, the ordinance the established the program states that overall relief cannot total more than 4 percent of all of the total real property taxes levied by the town -- at this point, $9 million.

"These are significant numbers that might happen," Bateson said.

Other recommendations include changing the credit program from a flat dollar credit based on income to a credit that is a percentage of the tax bill based on income. In addition, the program would go from a two-tier program with different income levels for married or single taxpayers to a one-tier program, with the same income limits applying regardless of marital status.

McCarthy said the changes, in particular the change to the deferral program, are designed to help seniors maintain their homes in town. He said the committee also has data that shows the number of seniors who meet the income criteria for tax relief is dropping.

"There are only a few of us that actually meet the age requirement in this room," said RTM member Carolyn Richmond. "So many of our seniors are having a hard time staying here." Richmond, who is resigning from the RTM, said that she and her husband are among those moving out of town.

Seniors, she said, are no longer in their prime earning years, and the tax relief should be seen not only as monetary assistance but as a way of saying, "Thanks for being there for us and supporting the town" in previous years. Richmond said some seniors are forced to take money out of their IRAs to pay their tax bills. "We say it's a generous program," she said. "It might be, by Connecticut standards, not by other states. Other states give real tax relief."

Under RTM rules, ordinances must be held over one month before they are voted on by the entire legislative body. The changes will come up for a vote at the Dec. 17 meeting.