CITIZENS   FOR  LIMITED  TAXATION
and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

CLT UPDATE
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Crises big and small


Hoping to increase voter turnout in state elections, a Beacon Hill senator is proposing legislation that would reward voters with tax incentives.

The bill, filed by Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton), would offer a $25 tax credit to those who vote in the general election. It also includes a provision that would give cities and towns the option of providing $25 in tax relief to residents who vote in municipal elections. Voters could choose whether to receive the credit on their state income tax or on their local property or motor vehicle excise tax....

Not everyone thinks increasing voter turnout through cash incentives is a good idea, though, even those who support other forms of tax relief. 

"I would take a tax credit wherever I can get it," said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. "But do you want people you have to bribe voting? I have never seen a reason to encourage people to vote who don't want to do it on their own. As a taxpayer this is great. As a citizen, I find it appalling."

State House News Service
Monday, January 10, 2005
Senator proposes to lure non-voters to the polls,
with a $25 tax credit


Saying there's nothing like the promise of a little extra cash to motivate people, Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, wants to give a $25 tax credit to Massachusetts residents who vote in the state's general election. He's proposing that cities and towns give a $25 break on property or excise taxes to those who vote in local elections.

Some scholars and other stewards of the Democratic process recoil at the thought, but Joyce says there's nothing more American.

"Why shouldn't we look at motivating folks to vote more?" he said, adding that there are tax incentives for purchasing a home or contributing to charity. "It seems to me that tax credits have motivated human behavior." ...

Like other observers who monitor voting trends, Joyce said he doesn't know of any other states giving tax breaks to voters. However, his office said there are countries that fine residents for not voting, such as Greece, Belgium, and Brazil....

"It may or may not have merit, but it has begun a discussion," he said.

The Boston Globe
Thursday, January 13, 2005
To boost turnout, one lawmaker pushes
$25 tax credit for voters


Governor Mitt Romney and legislative leaders say they are determined to lighten the tax burden on Massachusetts seniors who own their homes, seeking to ease the strain of property tax bills that are growing rapidly as residential property values spiral up across the state....

Adding urgency to the issue is a recent report by the Department of Revenue that argues that the value of the existing property tax exemptions should be increased and that exemptions should be made available to more seniors. Income and asset restrictions haven't kept up with inflation and rising property values, leading to a decline in the number of exemptions because fewer senior citizens qualify, the report said. The number of senior exemptions fell from 33,203 in 1992 to 20,359 in 2003....

Last year, Romney rejected the final tax relief plan, because it included a provision that would have allowed cities and towns to exempt seniors from tax increases brought on by Proposition 2˝ overrides. Backed by antitax groups, Romney argued that the provision would have increased the chance of overrides by blunting the opposition of seniors, who tend to vote against them....

"Currently, there are myriad options available to provide tax relief to various groups in Massachusetts," the Revenue Department report states. "Generally, when these programs provide relief to one group, other local or state taxpayers must pay more."

The Boston Globe
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
State eyes property tax relief for seniors


Charles Higgins says rising property tax bills drove him out of Medfield, the town he loves....

"The taxes just became so high I could no longer afford it," he said. "I am retired. I am a World War II veteran. And I have to live on Social Security and the little savings that I still have."

Higgins said he knows a half-dozen other elderly people who have been forced out of their towns....

Others accept rising taxes as the price of useful town services, including the high-quality schools they hope will pave the way to a bright future for their children.

"We kind of have to take the good with the bad," said Jane O'Hern, 48, a mother of two children in the Newton schools who doesn't mind paying more for better education.

"One way or the other, if you have kids in the school system, you try to get them the best education you can," she said. "And I think we get a lot of value in it." ...

Antitax activist Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, criticized the rising tide of tax increases.

"The state is full of spoiled, selfish people who take from others, regardless of the effect it has on them," Anderson said. "They want the best schools for their kids, and, by gosh, someone else is going to have to pay for it. And they do this, regardless if someone is living on a fixed income.

"The problem is that you can own property that is worth far more than you, really," she said. "Property taxes don't reflect your ability to pay. They don't account for people on fixed incomes, retired, people who are unemployed."

Massachusetts has the sixth highest local property taxes in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a research group in Washington.

The Boston Globe (West edition)
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Feeling the ax of rising taxes


When Robert Gagnon decided to retire 20 years ago, he never imagined that he would work again. He had already had three heart attacks. His doctor advised him to quit the insurance business.

But the cost of living kept climbing over the years, as did his property taxes. His pension and Social Security checks began to look smaller.

Now the 73-year-old finds himself back on the job, working at the Medway Senior Center in a program that will get him a break on his property tax bill....

Karen Alves, director of the Franklin Senior Center, said the workoff program is a "godsend for seniors, it truly is. ... And it keeps the seniors in town. Because if they move out, then some other family will most likely move in, which will cost the town more."

The Boston Globe
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Seniors: Will work for tax break


As real estate taxes soar along with other living expenses, senior citizens -- even those with healthy pensions -- say it is increasingly difficult to afford life in the suburbs. But many elders, for reasons both emotional and practical, refuse to sell their homes, some of which have skyrocketed in value over the past several years....

Many senior citizens do not understand the true value of their homes, according to Daniel Sullivan, an information services manager at South Shore Elder Services.

Although more elders are turning to reverse mortgages to tap into the equity in their homes, many are still apprehensive about the process.

"They fear they might lose their home and wind up in a nursing facility," Sullivan said.

This can result in situations where senior citizens are living in homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the mortgage paid off, but are working as a town custodian to help pay the taxes, he said.

The Boston Globe (South edition)
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Will work for tax break


Chip Ford's CLT Commentary

According to today’s news, the Legislature apparently has two looming crises to address. The second crisis deals with property taxes and the generational battle between elders being taxed out of their homes vs. the More Is Never Enough crowd of younger families who will settle for nothing but the best for their off-spring, at any cost to everyone else.

But never mind losing your home. Senator Brian Joyce (D-Milton) has found a real problem. My goodness, if more of our fellow citizens care so little about their civic responsibilities that they choose not to vote, then he has a solution: attempted bribery through a tax cut!

State Senator Brian Joyce is known here as "Multiple-Choice Joyce" since his treacherous flip-flop over the tax rollback once he was elected to the state Senate with CLT's 2˝ PAC endorsement, subsequently withdrawn.

I’ve never met a tax cut I didn't like, but this particular one, as Joyce admitted, "may or may not have merit."

Make that "not." Those of us who vote now do it without needing to be bribed. Do we really want to encourage the others to vote if they're doing it only for money -- and would a $25 tax credit motivate them to become an informed voter? Would they care who they vote for or why, or just vote to get paid?

Must the Legislature once again make Massachusetts "the only state in the nation" with yet another silly law? Obviously some legislators, if not most or all, simply have too much time on their hands. If Sen. "Multiple-Choice" Joyce wants to cut taxes, how about rolling back the income tax rate as the voters mandated -- and which he supported when running for his senate seat, and then voted against once elected?

Meanwhile, back to that other little crisis, escalating property taxes. Though we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Proposition 2˝, we note the new data from the Tax Foundation, cited in the Globe West story:  Massachusetts' property tax burden is now 6th-highest in the nation. During the years CLT was getting Prop 2˝ on the ballot, the burden ranged from first to third, depending on what was happening in Alaska and Wyoming. By 1991 we had dropped to 11th; in 1996 we were up to 7th; now we are 6th.

If we had made Prop 2˝ tougher in the beginning (e.g., without overrides), we wouldn’t have won its adoption, or couldn’t have prevented its repeal during the belt-tightening early years. But twenty-five years later, we may need to revisit the property tax issue.

Chip Ford


State House News Service
Monday, January 10, 2005

Senator proposes to lure non-voters to the polls,
with a $25 tax credit
By Cyndi Roy

Hoping to increase voter turnout in state elections, a Beacon Hill senator is proposing legislation that would reward voters with tax incentives.

The bill, filed by Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton), would offer a $25 tax credit to those who vote in the general election. It also includes a provision that would give cities and towns the option of providing $25 in tax relief to residents who vote in municipal elections. Voters could choose whether to receive the credit on their state income tax or on their local property or motor vehicle excise tax.

"The Ways and Means people would tell us we can't afford it, but I am intrigued by the idea of providing an incentive for people to vote," Joyce said. He said he was unaware of other states giving residents tax breaks for voting.

An aide to Joyce said rough estimates put the cost of the bill at about $25 million to $30 million annually. 

Supporters of the bill acknowledge it may be difficult to pass legislation with such a high price tag at a time the state is facing a nearly $1 billion structural deficit. But an ongoing decline in voter turnout may warrant the cost, said Sen. Scott Brown (R-Wrentham).

"If people are on the fence about voting, this could give them that little push that they need," he said. "We do offer tax breaks for corporations and for charitable organizations so why wouldn't we do this?"

Juan Martinez, executive director of the non-partisan group Mass Vote, which promotes voter participation and election reform, said is he encouraged by the effort to increase voter participation, but asserted that other programs may be more cost effective. 

"Any time a lawmaker tries to increase voter turnout, I think that's great. And this is an interesting idea," he said. "But other things like same-day registration at the polls may be cheaper and just as effective."

According to Joyce, the period from 1960 to 2000 marked the longest ebb in voter turnout in US history. In 2000, 51 percent of eligible voters turned out nationwide, while 55 percent, or 2.2 million, turned out in Massachusetts in 2002. The trend, he says, is leading more candidates to target only likely voters at the expense of the interests of large groups of non-voters.

Not everyone thinks increasing voter turnout through cash incentives is a good idea, though, even those who support other forms of tax relief. 

"I would take a tax credit wherever I can get it," said Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. "But do you want people you have to bribe voting? I have never seen a reason to encourage people to vote who don't want to do it on their own. As a taxpayer this is great. As a citizen, I find it appalling."

According to Joyce's office, more than 20 countries fine people for not voting.

Those countries include: Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, Bolivia, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Fiji, Liechenstein, Panama, Thailand, Uraguay, and parts of Switzerland. Italy also has mandatory voting though the law is not enforced. 

No other lawmakers have signed on to date as bill co-sponsors.

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The Boston Globe
Thursday, January 13, 2005

To boost turnout, one lawmaker pushes
$25 tax credit for voters
By Megan Tench, Globe Staff


Get-out-the-vote types have tried all kinds of ways to get people to the polls: ad campaigns, rock concerts, buses, and other measures that occasionally fall just short of coercion. Now a Beacon Hill lawmaker says he's come up with a better idea.

Money.

Saying there's nothing like the promise of a little extra cash to motivate people, Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, wants to give a $25 tax credit to Massachusetts residents who vote in the state's general election. He's proposing that cities and towns give a $25 break on property or excise taxes to those who vote in local elections.

Some scholars and other stewards of the Democratic process recoil at the thought, but Joyce says there's nothing more American.

"Why shouldn't we look at motivating folks to vote more?" he said, adding that there are tax incentives for purchasing a home or contributing to charity. "It seems to me that tax credits have motivated human behavior."

The measure has sparked heated debates on talk radio, though so far no other legislators have been willing to sign on.

Leaders in some communities said the notion of buying participation is insulting because it ignores deeper problems in the electoral process.

"To pay people to vote? That's absurd," said Leonard Alkins, head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.

"There's a reason why people aren't voting, and these reasons aren't being addressed," he said. "States, cities, and towns need to come together to stop voter fraud, to change the problems with voter registration, and to work on the impediments that prevent large numbers of individuals from voting."

Others say the estimated $30 million annual cost to the state would be too high at a time of tight budgets.

Still, some support the concept, if only because it's a novel approach to an old problem.

"Whenever a legislator is filing a bill to increase voter turnout it's a good sign," said Juan Martinez, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonprofit focused on voter participation and election reform. "In terms of whether or not it will work, we still don't really know. We are still pushing for other ideas, like same-day registration. It might be more effective."

The number of registered voters coming out to the polls has declined across the state in recent years, with the exception of presidential election years, when there tends to be higher turnout, according to figures released by the office of the Massachusetts secretary of state.

For example, during the general election in 2002, 55 percent of Massachusetts voters turned out. In 1998, 57.3 percent turned out. But last November, a presidential year, 71.4 percent of registered voters across the state participated.

Joyce said turnout affects the issues that politicians address. Instead of talking about college loans, they talk about Medicare and Social Security, he said. "They know that young people aren't voting," he said. "The elderly are."

Like other observers who monitor voting trends, Joyce said he doesn't know of any other states giving tax breaks to voters. However, his office said there are countries that fine residents for not voting, such as Greece, Belgium, and Brazil.

"The first goal, which I think we already accomplished, is to begin a discussion about how to increase voter participation," Joyce said.

While national observers of voter participation applaud Joyce for coming up with a creative way to tackle the problem, they aren't convinced that tax incentives are the right way to go.

"Some countries tried this with some success; they have higher turnout rates than we have," said Daniel M. Shea, a political science professor who directs Allegheny College's Center for Political Participation in Meadville, Pa.

"I think, here, it would probably have a positive effect; you would wind up with more people at the polls," he said. "But I'm not sure this is a good idea. Voting is the obligation of citizens in a democracy, and once you place a monetary value on a civic obligation, I think it distorts the nature of democracy."

Shea worries that while voter turnout may increase, tax incentives to vote may also drive up the cynicism that caused many Americans to stop voting in the first place. "We should vote because we feel part of the system and we feel like we can make a difference," he said. When we vote for material incentives, for cash, we shift our focus away from making a difference. I would hate to think that it's come to that."

Still, Joyce, who plans on filing other bills to stimulate voter turnout, said he is heartened by the buzz his bill has created. "It may or may not have merit, but it has begun a discussion," he said.

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The Boston Globe
Tuesday, January 11, 2005

State eyes property tax relief for seniors
By Scott S. Greenberger and Janette Neuwahl
Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent


Governor Mitt Romney and legislative leaders say they are determined to lighten the tax burden on Massachusetts seniors who own their homes, seeking to ease the strain of property tax bills that are growing rapidly as residential property values spiral up across the state.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi put senior property tax relief at the top of his agenda for the new legislative session, along with education and health care. Romney said last week that he also believes Beacon Hill should curb property taxes for seniors this year, and legislators have filed more than a dozen bills proposing various forms of relief.

Yesterday, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini joined the call. "It is an issue that every member of the Senate feels strongly about, and if any sector of the population warrants our assistance, it's the elderly homeowners on a fixed income," Travaglini said. "We're not going to encourage them to sell their homes to keep pace with the standard of living here."

Adding urgency to the issue is a recent report by the Department of Revenue that argues that the value of the existing property tax exemptions should be increased and that exemptions should be made available to more seniors. Income and asset restrictions haven't kept up with inflation and rising property values, leading to a decline in the number of exemptions because fewer senior citizens qualify, the report said. The number of senior exemptions fell from 33,203 in 1992 to 20,359 in 2003.

The Department of Revenue proposes raising the current property tax exemption for low-income seniors who are 70 or older from $500 to $1,400; the average tax bill in 2004 was $2,894. The Revenue Department also wants the state to change the income restrictions so more seniors are eligible. Under current law, a single taxpayer must have assets worth $28,000 or less, excluding his or her home, and an annual income of no more than $13,000 to qualify for the exemption, although cities and towns can raise those limits to $40,000 and $20,000.

But lawmakers are likely to go further than the Revenue Department by reviving a proposal that foundered at the end of last year, according to Representative Paul C. Casey, the Winchester Democrat who is cochairman of the Legislature's Taxation Committee.

That legislative proposal would have created a new property tax exemption for seniors 70 and older that would be worth 10 percent of the average assessed value of houses in the community where the senior lives. Cities and towns could opt to raise the exemption to 20 percent or reduce the age requirement from 70 to 65.

Under the 10 percent proposal, a senior in the town of Milton (where house values averaged $403,000 last year) would get an exemption worth $4,030. The average tax bill is $4,886 without the proposed exemption.

The income requirement for the new exemption would be tied to the state's circuit-breaker law, which already gives seniors income tax credits, in addition to the exemption, to cushion the impact of rising property taxes. The current income limits for the circuit breaker, which are tied to inflation, are $44,000 for singles and $66,000 for couples filing jointly.

In 2003, the Revenue Department handed out roughly $18.5 million in circuit-breaker credits to about 31,000 people.

In addition, Casey's proposal would seek to expand the number of seniors eligible for the circuit-breaker credits by raising the maximum property value allowed under the circuit-breaker provisions from $440,000 to $600,000 and tying future increases to housing prices, instead of the rate of inflation. Lawmakers also are interested in reducing the interest rate that cities and towns charge seniors for deferring property tax payments. Under current law, lower-income taxpayers older than 65 can defer property taxes until property is sold or upon their death. In the latter case, heirs must pay the full amount of deferred taxes plus interest. The current interest rate is 8 percent a year on taxes owed when property is sold and 16 percent a year on the total after the taxpayer dies.

Rapidly rising real estate values are at the heart of the property tax debate. In fiscal 2004, according to the Revenue Department report, residential property values around the state rose 17.2 percent statewide, compared with a 4.7 percent increase in the value of commercial and industrial properties. In Boston, the average property tax bill increased by more than 14 percent, and this year city residents will see an average 12 percent increase.

Cuts in state aid to cities and towns have also played a role in bringing property tax proposals to the fore, because dozens of communities have overridden Proposition 2, the state's property tax limit, to replace lost state revenue. Under Proposition 2, a community's total tax revenues cannot increase more than 2.5 percent from year to year, excluding tax revenue brought in by new construction. But a report released last year by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that residents in 39 communities voted to override the tax limit in 2003, approving a total of $48 million in new revenue. That amount is twice the total of overrides in 2002 and more than six times the annual average between 1994 and 2000.

Seniors' "costs are going up so much that they are choosing between medicines and food, and one way we can help them is to try and hold property taxes down," said Senator Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who has filed eight bills to provide tax relief to seniors. "We have a diverse community, and seniors are a strong part of that."

Support for senior tax relief appears to be strong on Beacon Hill, but potential pitfalls remain.

Last year, Romney rejected the final tax relief plan, because it included a provision that would have allowed cities and towns to exempt seniors from tax increases brought on by Proposition 2˝ overrides. Backed by antitax groups, Romney argued that the provision would have increased the chance of overrides by blunting the opposition of seniors, who tend to vote against them.

Instead, the governor proposed letting voters in the city or town decide whether to exempt seniors, arguing that the people should have the power to decide whether to shift the tax burden from one group of citizens to another. Time ran out before a final compromise could be reached.

Although Romney is professing support for the idea again, any plan that lightens the tax burden on seniors is likely to increase it for everyone else, because most cities and towns will tax up to their Proposition 2˝ limit.

"Currently, there are myriad options available to provide tax relief to various groups in Massachusetts," the Revenue Department report states. "Generally, when these programs provide relief to one group, other local or state taxpayers must pay more."

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The Boston Globe (West edition)
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Feeling the ax of rising taxes
Some say they may need to relocate;
others see it as cost of quality services
By Franco Ordoez, Globe Staff


Ready or not, here they come. Higher tax bills will soon be in the mail.

A review of recently set property tax rates in cities and towns in the Globe West circulation area found tax bill increases looming in all but one community.

The increases for the average single-family house range from 0.9 percent in Sudbury to 16.6 percent in Boylston. Only one town, Northborough, bucked the trend with a 0.2 percent decrease.

Charles Higgins says rising property tax bills drove him out of Medfield, the town he loves.

"I didn't want to leave," said the 71-year-old, who raised three children during his 30-year tenure in the town but now lives in a Millis condominium.

"The taxes just became so high I could no longer afford it," he said. "I am retired. I am a World War II veteran. And I have to live on Social Security and the little savings that I still have."

Higgins said he knows a half-dozen other elderly people who have been forced out of their towns. Some towns report rising interest in a program that allows those 60 and over to work in exchange for a break on their bills (see story below).

Others accept rising taxes as the price of useful town services, including the high-quality schools they hope will pave the way to a bright future for their children.

"We kind of have to take the good with the bad," said Jane O'Hern, 48, a mother of two children in the Newton schools who doesn't mind paying more for better education.

"One way or the other, if you have kids in the school system, you try to get them the best education you can," she said. "And I think we get a lot of value in it."

Assessors around the region cite various reasons for the steadily climbing residential tax bills. One is the drop in commercial property value that followed the dot-com bust. As the value of those properties declines, their owners pay less in taxes, shifting the tax burden to residential property owners.

Another reason is the steadily climbing value of residential property. While homeowners may be happy their houses are worth more, there's a catch: hefty increases in their tax bills, which are assessed according to a house's value.

The most significant factor in many of the increases, said several specialists, is that voters have agreed to raise their property taxes to pay for capital projects and services they felt were important.

"The towns that are constantly passing overrides to pay for schools and other capital projects -- [that] is where they are going to see their bill skyrocket," said Alfred Razzaboni, president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing. "Community tax bills are directly related to their spending practices."

Katie Murphy, a Framingham selectwoman, said that no one likes higher tax bills but that it takes money to run the police, fire, and public works departments and pay other workers who provide services. And those people deserve a living wage, she said.

"Taxes are the price of civilization," she said. "I have trash pickup. We have three beaches, two libraries; the schools are excellent; we have safe streets. I've never been under the impression that any of that is free."

Department of Revenue spokeswoman Joan Grourke said that 270 of 351 cities and towns have set their tax rates and had them approved by the state. Globe West looked at the tax rates and bills for the average-value single-family house in 34 cities and towns within the coverage area. Tax rates for the remaining communities -- Franklin, Medway, and Watertown -- have not yet been approved.

Along with Boylston, others registering the greatest increases in average single-family tax bills include: Marlborough (12.3 percent), Hudson (10 percent), Plainville (8.9 percent), Bolton (8.7 percent), and Westborough (8.7 percent).

Sudbury was joined by Upton (2.5 percent), Sherborn (3.1 percent), Newton (3.2 percent), and Wellesley (3.3 percent) in the group with the smallest increases.

In Northborough, Diane O'Connor, principal assessor, credited new growth (which reduces the burden on existing taxpayers) as one of the factors in the decline of that town's average single-family tax bill.

"I know they'd like to see it decrease more, but this is great," she said. "Very few communities see a decrease in their tax bills."

Communities seeing the highest average single-family tax bills in the area were Weston ($11,767), Sherborn ($9,889), Lincoln ($9,730), Sudbury ($8,100), Wayland ($7,904), and Wellesley ($7,564). The least expensive towns were Bellingham ($2,684), Waltham ($2,923), Hudson ($3,200), and Shrewsbury ($3,374).

Tax bills are calculated by multiplying the town's rate, typically set toward the end of each calendar year, by the property's assessed value, divided by $1,000.

The figures on fiscal 2005 tax rates and bills don't take into account residents' ability to pay. The Globe West region encompasses communities in which income levels vary widely.

The median family income in Weston, for example, is the highest in the state, while incomes in other towns are far more modest.

Antitax activist Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, criticized the rising tide of tax increases.

"The state is full of spoiled, selfish people who take from others, regardless of the effect it has on them," Anderson said. "They want the best schools for their kids, and, by gosh, someone else is going to have to pay for it. And they do this, regardless if someone is living on a fixed income.

"The problem is that you can own property that is worth far more than you, really," she said. "Property taxes don't reflect your ability to pay. They don't account for people on fixed incomes, retired, people who are unemployed."

Massachusetts has the sixth highest local property taxes in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a research group in Washington.

Increases in tax bills can vary within some towns, too. In Framingham, where the average single-family tax bill increase was 3.7 percent, residents in the southern section saw higher increases in their bills than in the northern section, because house values went up more sharply in the south, due to demand for starter homes, according to Michael Flynn, Framingham's chief assessor.

Boylston assessor Margo Richardson said her community's 16.6 percent increase in average single-family tax bills is directly related to voter approval last spring of a $500,000 Proposition 2 override. Voters approved the funding to fix the Boylston Elementary School and Tahanto Regional Middle-High School.

Critics see a world of uncontrollable property taxes where increases are always just around the corner.

"This makes it very difficult to stay in your home," said Neal Henderson, 58, of Wrentham. "You have to consider moving out. It's almost ridiculous to have to come up with all this money just to stay in your house. How much is it a week? Over $100 that you're just paying a week to just stay in your house?"

Henderson says his parents bought his house on Franklin Street for $13,000 in 1957. It is now assessed at $519,000. He calculates his tax bill will be $5,671.

"With all these bills pilling up, it's gotten to the point where the only way I'm going to get out of any of this debt is to die," said Henderson. "And that is not in my immediate plans."

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The Boston Globe (West edition)
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Seniors: Will work for tax break
By Franco Ordoez, Globe Staff


When Robert Gagnon decided to retire 20 years ago, he never imagined that he would work again. He had already had three heart attacks. His doctor advised him to quit the insurance business.

But the cost of living kept climbing over the years, as did his property taxes. His pension and Social Security checks began to look smaller.

Now the 73-year-old finds himself back on the job, working at the Medway Senior Center in a program that will get him a break on his property tax bill.

"Taxes kept on rising, and I needed some help," said Gagnon, who, in return for the tax break, does some maintenance work and helps other seniors run their errands.

"The income that I had then is not the income we need today. This was a way to reduce my tax load."

Gagnon is far from alone. Officials in several towns in the Globe West region say they are seeing a growing number of people 60 and older taking advantage of such programs, which can get them a reduction of as much as $750 on their property tax bills.

Officials say that many elderly people bought their houses decades ago, when prices were much lower. Their property values are now skyrocketing, but the resulting tax bills are increasingly difficult for them to pay from their modest fixed incomes.

Ninety communities within the state participate in the program, according to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, including at least 20 communities in the Globe West coverage area. State and local officials say the number of people participating increases each year.

Proponents see benefits all around. Seniors get to cut their tax bills and stay active in the community. Town officials get a skilled low-cost workforce. "The program just makes sense," said Emmett H. Schmarsow, the state's liaison to the local councils on aging. "It's good for the elder. It's good for the community."

The number of participants varies from town to town. The amount of credit possible also varies, with a maximum reduction of $750 allowed under state law. The elders are paid minimum wage, $6.75 an hour, and their salary is automatically deducted from their tax bills.

"It's really a win-win situation for both the city and our residents," said Jeremy Solomon, director of policy and communications for Newton. "They do outstanding work, great work, and in many cases they do work that would otherwise not get done. They are essentially the face of Newton when people visit City Hall. As greeters manning the help desk, assisting people with questions, they are the most visible part of the town offices."

In Medway, where there is usually a waiting list for the available 70 positions, town officials reported to the state that seniors worked more than 7,000 hours in the schools, the public library, town hall, and other municipal buildings. The tasks they accomplished included reading to children, cataloging books, and handling general administrative work.

Ginny Dale said her property tax bill has steadily increased from the $400 she paid in 1961 when she moved into her Medway home to $4,000 last year. She said she joined the "workoff" program to offset the rising bills but quickly fell in love with the work.

For the past three years, she has been reading stories, hanging children's artwork on the walls, and tying shoes in Lori Marchione's kindergarten class at Medway's Burke Memorial Elementary School.

"As soon as I heard they had a tax program on the works, I said, 'Put me on the list,' " Dale said, adding that she specializes in drying tears and wiping noses. "All my friends did. But when you do something you like, it's not work. It's fun."

The growing burden on the elderly of property tax bills is being recognized at the State House, where Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Democratic legislative leaders say they are determined to help.

Karen Alves, director of the Franklin Senior Center, said the workoff program is a "godsend for seniors, it truly is."

"Even [for] a senior with a significant income, it still makes a difference," Alves said. "Consider the price of prescription drugs these days. For people with a small income, it really helps. It's better for the community because they get skilled workers. And it keeps the seniors in town. Because if they move out, then some other family will most likely move in, which will cost the town more."

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The Boston Globe (South edition)
Sunday, January 9, 2005

Will work for tax break
In barter, seniors and towns swap labor for lower property tab
By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff


Frank Bocchino retired years ago, but the 72-year-old now earns minimum wage as an assistant at a Braintree elementary school.

Bocchino never sees a paycheck because the money -- $6.75 an hour to check in library books, help students with math problems, and other jobs -- is deducted from his property tax bill.

For Bocchino, known as "Mr. B." to his fourth-grade students, the deal is just right. It helps shave off about $750 from his annual $3,500 tax bill.

"I try to take advantage of every place I can get even $10," Bocchino said. "Living on a fixed income, my money stays stable but my taxes and other expenses go up. It's ridiculous."

Bocchino is one of a growing number of senior citizens in communities south of Boston who are reducing their tax burden by working for their towns.

As real estate taxes soar along with other living expenses, senior citizens -- even those with healthy pensions -- say it is increasingly difficult to afford life in the suburbs. But many elders, for reasons both emotional and practical, refuse to sell their homes, some of which have skyrocketed in value over the past several years.

At least 20 communities south of Boston have adopted programs that allow senior citizens to swap service to the town for tax abatements. Town officials say they get help they could not otherwise afford, and seniors get a tax break that makes living a little easier. It is also cheaper for the town in the long run, in many cases, to keep senior citizens as residents because they require fewer services -- such as schools -- than a new family with young children, town officials say.

"These programs are getting more popular and catching on across the state," said Emmett H. Schmarsow, program manager for the Massachusetts Council on Aging, which operates under the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. "The town receives valuable services and the elder gets financial help, which allows them to remain in their homes. It's good for seniors. It's good for the community."

The programs vary in each town, though most offer senior citizens the opportunity to work off between $500 and $750 of their annual property tax bills. Many municipalities, including Canton and Quincy, limit the number of participants and have lengthy waiting lists.

In Milton, which launched a similar program this year, 31 people applied for the 15 available spots. Some of the jobs include town greeters who sit at the entrance of Town Hall and help guide visitors to their destination.

"This year is the first time I've seen people who I previously thought were pretty comfortable coming forward saying it's harder and harder to make ends meet," said Mary Ann Sullivan, director of Milton's Council on Aging. "If you're a poor elder, there are many programs, such as fuel assistance, to help out. But if you're caught in the middle, like many in Milton, it's very difficult."

So elders -- some who retired a decade ago -- are reentering the work force as custodians, teacher's aides, and bookkeepers. They may not be experts in their new field, but the senior citizens are eager to learn, town officials say.

Hedy Michelson has lived for 50 years in the Walpole home she and her husband built, and, like many senior citizens, has thought more than once about selling the house.

The 75-year-old lives alone and has a huge garden to tend on her 1-acre property, for which the couple paid "a pittance" five decades ago, she said. But Michelson still thinks keeping the house is cheaper than renting, and defrays her taxes by working for Walpole's Board of Health, entering cesspool pumping records into the department's database.

"You think about downsizing and selling your house. Everyone thinks about it," said Bocchino, who has lived with his wife in the same Braintree home for 35 years. "But with condos and monthly fees, I'm not sure I'd be gaining anything."

Many senior citizens do not understand the true value of their homes, according to Daniel Sullivan, an information services manager at South Shore Elder Services.

Although more elders are turning to reverse mortgages to tap into the equity in their homes, many are still apprehensive about the process.

"They fear they might lose their home and wind up in a nursing facility," Sullivan said.

This can result in situations where senior citizens are living in homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the mortgage paid off, but are working as a town custodian to help pay the taxes, he said.

Aside from tax work-off programs, more senior citizens are tapping into the state's "circuit breaker" program, which provides income tax credits to seniors who meet certain income, age, and property value eligibility limits. In some towns south of Boston, the number of seniors filing for these tax credits more than tripled between 2002 and 2003.

Officials in several area communities said they hope to expand their tax work-off programs by allowing more seniors to participate and a larger reduction on their tax bills.

In some municipalities with long waiting lists, officials said they have let more elders join the program because it was too hard to turn them away.

"The need is there," said Thomas F. Clasby, director of Quincy's Council on Aging. "It's just not realistic to say that senior citizens are financially secure simply because they bought houses a long time ago and they are now worth astronomical amounts of money. It's a difficult time for seniors especially."

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